This may be Jesus’ most difficult expectation. “Love your neighbor” is tough enough, but “love your enemy” pushes me beyond my human ability. I know I don’t love well.
The words come from two of the gospels: Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.
I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . . .
Do to others as you would have them do to you.Luke 6
Much of what Jesus says in these beatitudes is pretty much impossible for us mere mortals to accomplish. I suppose some of the saints have drawn close to the high standards, but not many of us regular Jesus followers are anywhere close.
Several thoughts come to mind as I unpack Jesus’ words and try to figure out how to be in relationship with too many difficult people in my own life in these current days.
First, love is not a feeling. Jesus doesn’t say I have to like unlikeable people, but I can’t get away from his bald command that I must act with love even toward unlovable people.
The apostle Paul did a good job of summarizing love, once in First Corinthians 13 and again in Galatians 5: “The fruit of the Spirit is love.” Period.
Read it that way: love is Spirit’s fruit. And what does love look like? we ask Paul. He tells us quite clearly: Love = joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling; love is action.
So when I am around people I don’t like, I am still expected to maintain my self-control. I am still called to be patient, kind and gentle. When I act like this, treating others as I would want to be treated, I am released from bitterness and able to find some peace and even some joy; no one can steal that from me.
Another thought has to do with prayer; Jesus tells me to pray for my enemies but that doesn’t mean my prayers need to be warm and fluffy. For months now, I’ve been praying Mary’s prayer from her powerful and prophetic Magnificat:
Bring down the haughty from their thrones;
Lift up the lowly, the humble, [the competent and compassionate.]Luke 1
When we pray for our enemies, we can pray the prayers of the psalmists:
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark . . . to silence the enemy . . .Psalm 8
Or we can simply pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray:
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
I can pray that my enemies will be overpowered with truth, light and goodness; that their evil work will be thwarted; that their victims will be rescued and protected. “Tough love” calls for tough prayers.
My final thought asks the important question: Who is my enemy? In biblical and theological language, sin and death are the enemy. The “devil” is the enemy. Forces of evil are the enemy.
Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.Ephesians 6
I don’t pretend to understand what these “cosmic powers” are nor how they operate, but it was immensely helpful to me to realize that flesh and blood people are not really my enemies; rather they are victims of the enemy that deceives, abuses and manipulates. Indeed, all of us are victims of these forces that try to divide and conquer.
I think the saints among us who have managed a beatitudinal pattern to their lives understand they don’t have it in them to love perfectly or to pray rightly. So they have figured out how to open themselves up to Spirit and allow its fruit to grow in them and blossom through them. And I think (I hope) some of these saintly souls have also discovered actual feelings of love within the process of acting with love.
I’m working on it but I have a long way to go. Some days, I confess, I don’t even want to love. But then I realize those are the days when I am most bitter and miserable; I steal my own peace and joy. My “enemy” probably doesn’t know—or care—that I don’t love well, but I know. I know the fruit of not loving.
I don’t want to be that person. I really want the better angel of my nature to rise up within me during these challenging days. So I’ll keep working on acting like a loving person and maybe, one of these days, I’ll actually become a person who loves well.