Reformed Articles

Loving Enemies (And Why It Seems Impossible)

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Loving our enemies. It’s a tall order, a hard saying. There’s nothing easy about it. Let me get this straight, we say, you want me to love the people who hate me, who have set out to harm me, who’ve plotted to bring about my downfall. How am I supposed to love those who discredit me, who disenfranchise me, who spread falsehoods about me?

Encircled by gnashing critics, Reformer John Calvin referred to his detractors in 16th century Geneva as “tearing wolves.” These were not stuffed kids’ toys; they were leaders in the church, leaders in the political life of the community, snarling enemies with power and the will to use it against him.

About men like this, Jesus said, “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44). Our reaction to the Savior’s words depends somewhat on our relational circumstances. When all is well and we are far removed from the dust and grit of battle, Jesus’ command feels pretty manageable. There’s nothing to it. Loving hypothetical enemies is as easy as singing opera in your car by yourself—until we are confronted with the real article, a flesh-and-blood, teeth-slavering enemy.

It feels like somewhat safer ground when Jesus tells his disciples to love their neighbors (Mark 12:31). That’s easy. Not all our neighbors are enemies. In fact, many of our neighbors we sort of like. But, touching a raw nerve, Jesus implied that their neighbor was the Samaritans, the despised dogs living on the wrong side of the border. Deep down, we all know that putting up with our neighbor is worlds apart from loving our neighbor.

So, who is your neighbor today? Who is my neighbor? It’s not the kindly soul who bakes chocolate chip cookies for you, or the octogenarian farmer across the way who pitchforks a load of hay from his own field and delivers it, just to be neighborly (true story). It’s the neighbor who has leveled his cannons at you, seeks your ruin, and has become your enemy.

Powerful Enemies

Loving our enemies. It’s a tall order, a hard saying. There’s nothing easy about it. Let me get this straight, we say, you want me to love the people who hate me, who have set out to harm me, who’ve plotted to bring about my downfall. How am I supposed to love those who discredit me, who disenfranchise me, who spread falsehoods about me?

Have you felt this? Who are your real enemies today, those who drop trouble on you, who bear an angry grudge against you (Psalm 55:3), those who have used their power to lay traps for you? Browse throughout the Psalms and you will recall the psalmist feeling the full weight of abandonment and betrayal from his enemies. Worst of all, some of the psalmists’ enemies were once friends, members of his own household, people he had worshiped with, his partners in ministry (Psalms 55:12-14). And Jesus tells us to love these enemies.

Let’s not sugar coat things when we say enemies. As a writer, I’ve been blessed with many readers and reviewers who appreciate what I write, and who kindly let me know that in various ways—including by continuing to read my books. But that’s not how everyone responds. I have enemies. Not of the Teddy bear variety. They are critics who feel like tearing wolves with claws and fangs, powerful detractors who use their influence to do harm, who make it their business to extinguish this “faintly burning wick” (Isaiah 42:3).

Forgiving Enemies

It is no good saying I love my enemies unless I feel the full weight of their chosen status as genuine enemies. The enemies Jesus calls us not just to put up with, but to love, are the real article, enemies with swords and clubs, and hammer and tongs, and power and the will to use it against us. Enemies whose offences against us are real and costly. These are the enemies you and I are called to forgive and love. Let’s be honest, loving enemies feels impossible.

Only Jesus, tempted in all points like as we are (Heb 4:15), perfectly demonstrated this love for his enemies. Betrayed, bloodied, bludgeoned beyond recognition, and dying in anguish on a Roman gibbet, Jesus prayed to his Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). I must confess, my response, however, is to cast about for a loophole. Okay, Jesus’ enemies may not have known what they were doing, but my enemies know exactly what they’re doing.

Have you felt that? Maybe you’ve lost a job as the result of a witch hunt, your reputation slandered, your career in jeopardy—and your boss knew exactly what he was doing. Or you’ve been falsely accused of doing something wrong by someone who knows you didn’t do it. There’s nothing new under the sun; recall the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, at least twenty souls going to their deaths because of false accusations made by neighbors who took concerted and knowing steps to become deadly enemies.

Splendid Sins

The best of our good works done this side of glory are, as Augustine called them, merely “splendid sins.” The accused witches in Salem Village were likely not witches, but they were sinners; they may have all been true Christians, being sanctified, but in need of daily grace for the forgiveness of their sins, and for the mixture of motives in their obedience. So it is for all of us. Our enemies don’t know the half. In the dark recesses of our hearts, we’re worse than they think. It’s not just they who are enemies. We have done what they are doing. Every flirtation with the world aligns me as an enemy of God (James 4:4). Who among us does not have our lingering pet friendships with the world? We are the enemy.

Jesus’ supreme expression of love for his enemies, however, is far more personal. If we are true Christians, it was while we were yet sinners and enemies of Christ’s that he died for us (Rom 5:10). Jesus, who calls us to love our enemies, supremely did so when he laid down his life for me his enemy, fully to pay the debt of sin I owed for my cosmic offenses against a thrice-holy God.

Impossible

“Love your enemies.” It’s far more than a tall order, a hard saying. It’s an impossible one. You’ve tried. I’ve tried. As an act of will power, or new resolve, love for my enemies is impossible. A few lines after this impossible command, Jesus concluded with an even more impossible one: “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

Wrongly understood, that has to be the most terrifying verse in the Bible. I can’t manage ten minutes of perfection, let alone a life that is pronounced perfect as God himself is perfect. We must have an Advocate, a substitute, one who acts vicariously on our behalf and for our eternal perfection. Jesus himself is our righteousness, the one who faultlessly obeyed his Father’s will, and imputed his own perfect righteousness to my account (Phil 3:9). Without the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, I can no more love my enemies than I can measure up to the perfect holiness of Almighty God. But as I grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18), and he continues his gracious work of sanctifying me–and using my enemies unwittingly to aid in that sanctification–I come to love him more as he first loved me (I John 4:19) while I was yet his enemy. The God who changes enemies like me into friends and fellow heirs, is at work in me. In Christ, I can do all things through my elder brother who strengthens me (Phil 4:13), even forgive and love the tearing wolves encircling me.

Join me as I abandon hope in my efforts to love my enemies. Let’s press on in the all-powerful strength of Christ today, as we–once intractable enemies ourselves–seek his gracious enabling to do the impossible–love our enemies.

Douglas Bond, author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t), has written numerous books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). This article is used with permission.