Can we truly love our enemies?

Q.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”  Forgiveness is one thing, but I think this is impossible.

Jesus would certainly be asking us to do something unreasonable, if not impossible, when he tells us to love our enemies–people who have hurt us, or violated our trust, or taken advantage of us, or who are out to get us–if love means a feeling, a warm and delighted attraction to another person that makes us want to be in a close relationship with them.  A person who’s been badly hurt by someone else simply can’t force themselves to feel those things towards that other person.  Our feelings and emotions aren’t under our control in that way.

But the kind of love for enemies that Jesus commands isn’t a feeling.  It’s a commitment.  It’s a decision of the will, which is under our control.  Specifically, love is the commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.

This is clear from the way Jesus immediately elaborates on his statement:  “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.”  He’s talking about actions, not feelings.

This is also how Jesus’ earliest followers understood his statement.  Paul writes in Romans, for example, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but . . . if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink . . . do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The goal, in other words, beyond forgiving someone who has hurt us (which sets us free from bitterness and the hold that the other person’s action might otherwise have over us), is to choose to pursue their best interests in our actions towards them, so that good triumphs over evil.  This also makes own our character more godly, as Jesus goes on to explain:  “Love your enemies, do good, and . . . you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Doing loving actions as a commitment to another person’s good may mean, however, actually breaking off our relationship with them for a time, if they would only hurt us again if we stayed in relationship.  We aren’t called to enable other people’s destructive behavior.  There need to be positive signs of change on their part before it’s safe for us to pursue reconciliation, beyond forgiveness.  But we can still pray for them and hope for the best for their lives.

In other cases, we may be able to do something practical to help them, and when we do this, it might even enable them to recognize that they were acting wrongly and that they need to change.  But we need to be led carefully by God’s Spirit to do, in any given case, what is healthy and appropriate for us and the other person.

So, to sum up, the kind of love Jesus commands us to have for our enemies isn’t a feeling.  It’s a commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.  And I believe, God helping us, we can do that even for our enemies.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

1 thought on “Can we truly love our enemies?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s