“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” ~ Jesus (Matt. 5:44).
These words from Jesus have received the praise and adoration of many people. But they’re hard to put into practice, right? I think C. S. Lewis was on to something when he said, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a great idea, until we actually have to forgive someone” (paraphrase). So, how can we be helped in this aspect of following Jesus? In his book Love Walked among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus, Paul Miller writes this about Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies”:
Is Jesus a masochist? That kind of love sounds crazy. Won’t we open ourselves up for more hurt? No. Think about it. There are two problems with enemies. What they did hurts, and as we obsess about what they did, bitterness sets in like a claw in the brain. We become so focused on the hurt that we don’t notice the bitterness slowly eating away at us—like cancer of the soul. Bitterness quietly transforms us so we become just like our enemy.
Jesus’ command to love your enemies takes the energy out of bitterness. Instead of plotting revenge, we plan how to do them good. We reflect on their needs and how to help. . . . Love like this takes our own heart by surprise and healing begins. Bitterness dies for lack of fuel.
Love also breaks the cycle of evil, keeping us from becoming like the enemy. Instead, we become like Jesus—free—no longer controlled by the other person’s evil. What’s more, love unnerves an enemy, throwing him off guard. But best of all, it makes room for God’s justice and mercy. To love an enemy means to trust that God is far more effective than I am. It takes faith to love.
Something dies in us when we love like this. We die to our own selfishness, self-will, and the demand that our lives look and feel a certain way. Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he said that he was “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:10-11).
In my own experience, the reason we have trouble loving enemies (or anyone who is difficult for that matter), is because we’re not receiving love in return. As fallen human beings, we search for life in other things: People, places, affirmation, accomplishments, dreams, etc. We draw life from these things. Thus, what makes loving enemies so difficult is that we’re being asked to love someone from whom we’re not receiving life in return. Hence, it feels like death. In a very real sense, something is dying: When you love someone who doesn’t love you in return, you’re starving the idol in your life. Your demand to get life from someone else is dying.
This is why the gospel is so beautiful: It tells us that we have received everything we need from God. The gospel declares that we get everything we need vertically, not horizontally. I don’t receive the strength to love other people from other people. I receive the strength to love other people from God! Hallelujah many times over!