If we’ve studied the word of God much, we know that God is love and that, one day, the entire world is going to function on the principles that come from the heart of God. So it makes a lot of sense to love our enemies, because we know that God is love. And it’s not just Christians that know this. There are a lot of religions that have this same understanding. It’s kind of a universal principle that everybody knows works, but it’s the practical reality of the application of the principle that is the problem. Ghandi said, “You know, your Jesus I like. It’s your Christians that are the problem.” And of course, we say the same thing about them. We just have so much trouble with this. And that’s why we have personal problems and why we have problems with other nations. If we could even approach this ideal, things would go better for us on every level – personal, familial, national, international. Really, in the long run, it’s going to be the love of God that is going to save us from ourselves, because nothing else is strong enough.
So let’s get down to the practical reality of how to love our enemies. There are some people that just don’t like us. They don’t like the way we walk. They don’t like the way we talk. Some people aren’t going to like us because we do our job better than they do. Some people aren’t going to like us because other people like us. Some people aren’t going to like us because our hair is a little shorter than theirs or a little longer than theirs. Some people aren’t going to like us because our skin color is different. And some people aren’t going to like us because of the car we drive. Sometimes people just don’t like us and it’s not anything that we have done. But after we think about these things, then we have to face the fact that our enemy might dislike us because of something we have done. So we have to begin with ourselves, if we’re going to understand how to love our enemies. There might be something within us that arouses a hate response from that other person.
I was working with a younger couple sometime ago in counseling. She was frustrated with her husband because he seemed irresponsible. She worked. They had three kids. And it seemed to her that he didn’t help much around the house and didn’t take any initiative in family things. She said that it felt like everything was on her shoulders. It was just crushing her down. She had to make all the decisions. He’d abdicated his role. It sounded like he was pretty much of a louse alright. Then I started talking to him and he said it was the same way and yet different. He said that she was always angry, always putting him down, always wanted to make all the decisions. He felt like he had no say in anything that was going on. They joy was gone. He wasn’t motivated to work on their relationship anymore. And it felt like their marriage was just kind of crashing and burning. He was really worried about it, for the sake of the children.
Well, one day, in an EMDR session, he realized that she needed him to take a more active role. So he went home and cleaned out the garage – did dump runs, even – just cleaned it out. And then he started picking up around the house and vacuuming the following week. And amazingly, he said, “She became a lot more calm and started asking him what he wanted to do and what she could do to help him.” His perception was…he said, “I was not the total cause of the problem, but I did not realize my behavior was making it worse.” So that’s a pretty good admission, I think. He said, “I thought the problem was her angry, overly emotional, unappreciative, judgmental nature.”
So, is there any biblical support for the fact that we should look at ourselves first? Well, I think that’s what Jesus meant when He said, “How is it that you can see the splinter in your brother’s eye and not the plank in your own” – quick to find fault with other people. That’s one of the tragedies of human nature – always quick to defend self, to project the cause of difficulty onto other people. So we have to look at ourselves first. What are we doing to contribute to the situation?
Parents come in my office a lot and they want me to fix their kids. And I explain to them that, even though their efforts are well-intended and even though their motives are completely pure, they’re probably doing something to cause the problem without realizing it, because children always follow the tone set in the home by the adults. They don’t set the tone. Now sometimes the tone is set at school, so the child has a problem at school and not at home. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, most of the time, to figure out what’s going on. Usually, if you just treat children differently, they will act differently. So we have to look at ourselves.
What else can we do then? Well, then we have to take a look at our enemy – not to judge them down, but to try to find the good in them – to balance out the bad that we see. People are not good or bad. There are a lot of black and white thinkers in the world today. You’re good or you’re bad. But people are not good or bad. They’re good and bad. Everybody is good and bad. Nobody is perfectly good. Nobody is perfectly bad. There is good and bad in all of us.
The apostle Paul said, “The good that I want to do, I do not.” That was the guy that was handpicked by God to take the gospel to the Gentiles. And he had a terrible time doing what was right he said. And this is not just for people that are converted. This dual nature is common to everybody. Did you know that the Latin poet, Obed, said the same thing that Paul said? He said, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” It was almost like Paul had read him or he had read Paul.
So, within the best of us there is some evil, and within the worst of us there is some good. So when we can come to look to find the good, we can take a different attitude toward other people. That person that hates you so much, he has some good in him. We’re taught in the scriptures that we’re all God’s children and that we’re all made in God’s image. So there is something good in all of us – and something bad.
I had a young woman come to my office sometime ago. When I asked her why she came she said, “I don’t like who I have become. I’m way too critical of others, way too judgmental and way to mean.” So I asked, “Well, how do you think you got this way?” She said, “I don’t know. I just know that I used to be a much nicer person and now I’m not. I’m worried that I will never find my real self again.” That’s a pretty interesting statement. And it’s a good statement. She sees that there’s really something good in there, but she doesn’t understand why that’s been overtaken by the bad. She knew that there was a good self in there. “Oh no, we’re all carnal. We have human nature. We’re just terrible. We’re born rotten.” That is not what God says. He said – when He created man and woman – He looked at everything He’d made and said, “That’s good!” He said we’re made in God’s image. God is not bad. So there is something good underneath all the bad stuff. So those of you who don’t believe that way, you need to retool your brain and start thinking God’s way about how you were created and what the potential you have in you really is. She’d lost contact with the good. I asked her who she was making trouble for and she said, “Mostly my boyfriend. I treat him really badly. He even asked me what happened to the old me – the nice one.” So I asked, “Has he given up on you?” And she said, “No, not yet, but he wants the old me back and so do I.” So here is a clear picture of somebody that sees faults that she has and is willing to work on them – very determined, very committed – week after week to come in and do the work. And yet, she’s not a member of the Church of God.
So, if we’re going to love our enemies, we have to see what is loveable there. And what is is the image of God. It doesn’t matter what we do, or what our enemy does, if we look for God’s image, and we see it, then it’s going to be easier for us to love them. We do profess to love God, don’t we? So wouldn’t we love His likeness in someone else? Even the most terrible people have a hard time sloughing off the goodness that is in them. So, to love our enemy, we have to focus on what is good in them.
The third thing that we want to talk about is that we need to defeat the system, not the person in it. I’m going to start with something and then I’ll get back to the system part in a minute.
When you have the opportunity to defeat your enemy, or to get even with them – to execute retribution – that is the time that we should not do it. Eye for an eye does not work on a personal level. In almost all instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who misuses you the most, the person who has gossiped about you the most, the person who spread false rumors about you the most, they are eventually going to become vulnerable. It almost always happens. And what goes around eventually comes back around again. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job that they need from you, or they might need something else from you. That is the time that we must not take revenge. That’s what love mean. That’s what loving your enemies is. “But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.’”
There was a time when King Saul was in a murderous rage against King David. He was insanely jealous of him. He chased him all over the country with murder in his heart. At one point he went into a cave to relieve himself, while he and his army were traipsing all over the countryside chasing the illusive David, and he didn’t know that David was hiding in the cave behind him. David could have killed him easily. But he didn’t. He did not strike back. That’s what love is. That’s Godly love. That’s loving your enemy.
So Godly love is not just sentimentality. It’s not just an emotion. Love is a creative, understanding good will for everybody. It’s the refusal to defeat an individual.
Let’s talk about the system. Usually when people are behaving badly, they are caught up in a system. Was Saul caught up in a system? Well, he certainly was. He just happened to be at the top of it. Usually the people caught up in systems, the higher up they go in the system, the more badly they behave. Germany under Hitler. Russia under communism. Pharisees in their religion. Siblings who abuse each other are caught in a dysfunctional family. Most of the time, there is pressure put on us socially and we behave badly. So individuals who get caught up in the system, we love, but we seek to defeat the system that is wrong and causing problems for people.
Let’s look at something else, too. The Greek language helps us understand Godly love in a way that we can’t, because, in our language, we have one word for love and in Greek there are three. They have a word, eros, and that is like romantic love – and encompasses other things beside that, but that’s the meaning we think of. And then there is philia – love of friends. The love David had for Jonathan would be an example of that. Or the love that siblings have for each other – if they have love for each other – would be an example of that. It’s sort of an intimate affection between personal friends. It’s sort of a reciprocal kind of love. On this level, you love a person because they love you, or you have things in common, so you get something from the relationship. We love on this level because we are loved. There is something about the person that we love – or that is likeable to us. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is good – to have things in common, to communicate with a person, to like to do things with them. That’s all good. But there is another kind of love that they talk about in the Greek. And that is agape. That we could call Godly love. And the qualities about that: we could talk about redemptive love or good will love.
One of the characteristics of agapic love is that it seeks nothing in return. It’s just given. We look at every person and we know that God loves them and that they have God’s image – that they have God’s spirit in them – and I don’t mean theHoly Spirit, but I just mean a spirit from God to be a person. And he or she might still be the worst person we’ve ever met – the meanest snake.
I think of Zacchaeus, the tax collector in the Bible – truly a reprehensible person – hated by all, because of the way he had treated people. Jesus loved him – treated him with respect. That’s what it means to love your enemies. He saw something good in Zacchaeus and He talked to it and Zacchaeus responded.
Now, He didn’t say, “Like your enemy.” Like is something sentimental and affectionate. And there are a lot of people that we find difficult to like. We don’t like what they do to us or other people. We don’t like what they say about us or other people. We don’t like their attitudes toward us or other people. But Jesus says to love them. And He set an example of that for us.
Love is greater than like. Love is understanding. It’s redemptive, good will for all man, so that we love everybody, because God loves them. We refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual because we have agapic love in our hearts for them – if we do. Eventually, if we can learn how to do this, we come to the point where we love the person who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that person does. And that, I think, is what Jesus meant when He said, “Love your enemies.” That’s the way to do it. When you face the opportunity – when it presents itself – to defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
Let’s move from practical reality now to talk about something else. Let’s talk about the question of why we should love our enemies – the theory behind it, perhaps.
The first thing to mention is that hate escalates hate. It’s a cycle and it goes the wrong direction. I think this reason is really the center of why Jesus said this – His thinking on it. Hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in other people. It doesn’t make it better. It makes things worse. If I hit you, and then you hit me, and I hit you back, and you hit me back, and so on, it just goes on and on, and gets more intense. If we had unlimited strength, we’d just hit each other forever, because there would be nothing to stop it. It would just get stronger and stronger and more hateful.
You think about the situation in Eastern Europe today with the Christians and the Muslims. They have done so much bad stuff to each other. Nobody can even remember where it started, but they’re still slugging it out. And every few years it breaks out again in some kind of terrible war or genocide or something like that. So it’s the strong person who can cut the chain of hate and break that evil thing that is going on.
There was an historian named Toynbee, who tells us that out of twenty-two civilizations that have risen up in human history, all but seven quickly found themselves on the junk heap of destruction. And that’s because human cultures are often about power, and once used, the other side feels obligated to use power in response. So hatred develops on both sides. I think, probably, the quintessential example in history of this would not so much be Germany – although they certainly would qualify – would be the ancient Assyrian Empire. That was a culture that worshipped war. The status was not determined in that culture by how much land or money one had, but by how many slaves taken in battle or how many enemies one had killed. They were so brutal, as a culture, that the other nations finally ganged up on them and destroyed their culture for ever – scattered them. So all the hatred that they sent around came back around to them.
Another reason why we should not hate other people is because hate distorts us. We should love other people so that we don’t fall into that. We usually think of what hate does for the person who is being hated – the target. But it’s even more tragic what it does to the one who is doing the hating. We just begin hating somebody and we start doing irrational things. We can’t see straight anymore – we get so angry, or so prejudiced, or so biased. Beautiful can be ugly and ugly can be beautiful when you’re really hating somebody. Good can become bad. And bad can become good. True becomes false and false becomes true. It’s just amazing. I hear that all the time in my office.
I mentioned earlier the young woman who said she didn’t like who she had become. She was mean and judgmental. Well, she told me about a time – while we were in the process of working through stuff – when she was thirteen and her mother put her out on her porch with a suitcase at 2 am and told her that her dad would be by to pick her up. And he didn’t come until 6. Once she finally worked through her deeply buried anger toward her mother, and let go of it, she stopped being mean. She stopped being judgmental. Her comment – when she finally figured it all out – was, “I am free. At last I am free.” It was like an evil spell lifted from her. She could now go on with her life, once free of the anger that she unconsciously held for her mother. It felt like a huge weight was lifted off her shoulders. So hatred becomes corrosive. She was distorted, wasn’t she? She didn’t even realize that she was hating her mother, but she did.
Final reason to love our enemies: without love, there is no way to change our enemies. If we use hate on them, we only get more of the same – more hatred back. I think that’s another reason why Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” It’s that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is power there to eventually transform people. All of us, as Christians, are recipients of that kind of love from God. Has it changed you? Jesus said that when we all realize He died on the stake for us, all of us – all humanity – it will transform us and that His loving act will eventually draw us all to Him. So there’s something about love that builds up and is creative. And there is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So which way do you want it to be?
I was thinking of an example of this. When Abraham Lincoln was running for president, there was a man who ran all around the country talking about him. He said a lot of bad things about him – a lot of really mean-minded things. Sometimes he would even get to the point that he would talk about his looks, saying, “You don’t want a tall, lanky, ignorant man like this to be the president of the United States.” After Lincoln won the election, he had to choose a Cabinet. There came a time when he had to choose the Secretary of War and he chose a man by the name of Stanton. And his advisors said to him, “Mr. Lincoln, are you a fool? Don’t you know what Mr. Stanton has been saying about you all these months? Do you know what he’s done and tried to do to you? Do you know that he tried to defeat you on every hand? Did you read all those derogatory statements he made about you?” And Lincoln stood before his advisors and said, “Oh yes, I know all about it. I’ve been reading the papers. I even heard him in person – heard him myself. But after looking over the country, I find that he’s the best man for the job.” And so he selected Mr. Stanton to become the Secretary of War. And just a few months later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. If you go to Washington today, you will discover that one of the greatest statements ever made about Abraham Lincoln was made by Stanton. As Lincoln was coming to the end of his life – or came to it, I should say – Stanton stood up and said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” And he made a beautiful statement concerning the character and the stature of Abraham Lincoln. He had been transformed by Lincoln’s agapic love.
That’s it. There’s a power in love that the world really doesn’t understand yet. Loving our enemies is not weakness. It’s the way to win for everybody. Some people think that if we don’t fight back, we lose. But, in reality, loving our enemies can transform them.
If you think about it, while Jesus did love all His enemies, He also hated the systems that entrapped them. And He fought those systems. He turned the tables in the temple. He blasted the practices of the Pharisees. He fought against those things and preached against them. And, in the end, He is going to win out. All the Pharisees are going to become Christians. He’s going to win. It says that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess – every knee, every tongue – all His enemies are going to acquiesce.
So love is the greatest power that is in the universe. And when we apply it to our enemies, everybody wins. So that’s it about loving our enemies – just a bit.
From here, in the Important Stuff series, we’re going to move into some things Jesus told us not to do in near future.