There are some “hard” questions I get asked, as a pastor, and maybe you have wondered about some of them as well… So here is Hard Question #8 – “How are we supposed to love our enemies?”
The question comes from an instruction Jesus gave us. You can read it in Matthew 5:43-48… 43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Have you ever tried to apply this passage in your own life? It’s hard right? Maybe even thinking about trying to “love your enemy” gives you a stomachache … I mean whoever that person is didn’t get the title “enemy” because he or she sent you flowers. They did something significant to earn their position as an enemy. Loving them means some combination of stuff like forgiving them, inviting them back into your life, starting over… right? Is that stuff even possible?
Well like anything there are degrees of difficulty when we think about this idea. If you have an enemy that made your list because they stole a high school boyfriend or girlfriend and you are now someone in your 40s – hopefully loving that enemy isn’t completely an overwhelming idea. (If it is, you might want to go talk to someone in the counseling field…) But what about someone who has lost a loved one to a drunk driver? Or how about a parent who’s lost a child to a murderer? Even typing those made my stomach hurt. How could we ever love an enemy of that caliber?
That’s where we have to have some clarity about what Jesus was instructing us when he said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It used to be that when I heard that phrase I pictured some caricature that looked like this: One man approaches another man and without warning or provocation PUNCHES him as hard as he can in the face. After the man who is punched recovers enough to stand up with blood pouring from his now deconstructed nose, he throws open his arms and hugs the man who punched him saying “I LOVE YOU!” Perhaps you have had some similar cartoon that plays in your head when you hear that instruction from Jesus and you have the same response as me which sounds something like… “That is impossible.” If that is at all similar to how you picture this instruction… let me help clarify, that it is the wrong picture.
The confusion around love and enemies comes from the same place that keeps us confused about the relationship between justice and forgiveness.
Many people find it hard to forgive someone because they feel forgiveness is something that needs to be earned. If someone wrongs us they need to do something to right that wrong thus earning our forgiveness. If they don’t and we forgive them anyway, we fear that they will get the impression that they can just do whatever they want, anytime they want and there will never be consequences for their actions.
The reality is though that forgiveness and justice are not even related.
Forgiving someone does not in any way preclude them from facing ramifications for their actions. When I was a teenager I worked at a small, locally owned pharmacy. The owner was a gruff old man who chain smoked cigarettes all day long while he filled prescriptions. I heard him on the phone with a customer once and I heard him say, “You don’t like ashes in your penicillin?!? Order it somewhere else then!”, and he hung up the phone. Like I said, he was gruff. One particular day, a teenager came in and was acting really suspicious. He was kind of slinking around the store and I could see the owner watching him. The kid “pretend” shopped for a while and then started to head out the door when the pharmacist grabbed him. He said. “let me see what you put in your pocket.” The kid started bawling as he emptied his pockets of the stolen items. He was literally begging for forgiveness and promising he would never do it again… but the pharmacist had actually already called the police and there was an officer already coming in the door. I’ll never forget what he told that kid… he said, “Son… I do forgive you… But you are going to jail if I have any say in it.” And he turned him over to the officer. I was stunned watching it all. I must have been pretty quiet the rest of my shift because as I started to leave for the day the owner asked me what I thought about what had happened. I told him I wasn’t sure what to think. He said, “I bet you think I should have just let him go… but let me tell you something… I hope beyond hope that boy never does anything like that again… But had I just let him walk out of here just because he could cry, he might believe he can always rely on that, and he could end up in some really bad trouble down the road. I don’t know him from Adam, but I can love him enough to not want that for him.” That really stuck with me… as now nearly 30 years later I can still remember it almost word for word.
I believed him. He forgave that kid but still allowed him to face justice. Forgiveness does not equate to a dismissal of ramifications for our actions. The same is true with God and us. When we ask God for forgiveness – believe that you receive it immediately … but it does not mean you won’t still face some consequences for whatever it was you asked forgiveness from… An example might be a drunk driver who kills someone in a crash. Just because God will forgive – does not mean that person no longer deserves punishment.
Loving our enemies is much the same. Let’s use the most extreme example of an enemy that we have today. ISIS. Evil men and women who have tortured and murdered hundreds, potentially thousands, of completely innocent hindus, jews, atheists, other muslims and Christians… How can we possibly love them? Does loving them preclude a call to seeing justice doled out? The quick, simple answer is NO. Loving them does not have to preclude justice.
Jesus made a statement in Matthew 26 that has become a favorite of pacifists … It was when he told a follower to put his sword away and he said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” That’s an interesting statement. Actually more than just a statement it’s a good and accurate fact. Basically it’s like saying, “for you to die in a knife fight, you have to get into a knife fight.” So the logical advice would be… “You don’t want to die in knife fight? Don’t get into one.” That that is really good advice for everyone. That’s advice that ISIS members should have considered before they chose their path. They chose the sword.
Romans 13:1-7 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
Members of ISIS have chosen to make us their enemies. I believe that loving them is praying that their hearts are turned away from the hatred and bitterness they have embraced, to lay down their swords… Loving them is praying that they don’t choose to “take the sword” in the first place. But loving them can also include seeking that justice is attained… and that they are stopped from harming one more victim – at whatever cost required to stop them. Loving them can include the fact that their actions deserve justice and hopefully justice will be served very soon.
Loving an enemy is absolutely possible because love and justice can absolutely go hand in hand. Loving our enemies can include justice as they are not mutually exclusive of one another. We just have to guard our hearts to ensure that a search for justice does not turn to hatred, bitterness, anger, wrath… We have to carry a heavy reality that members of groups like ISIS will perish not knowing Jesus. Eternity is in the balance… and that carries a tremendous amount of weight. But they have made their choice the moment they pick up the sword.