“The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust.” —Isaiah 32:17
Loving Your Enemies
Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies.” Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? Others, like the philosopher Nietzsche, contend that Jesus’ exhortation to love one’s enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. Jesus, they say, was an impractical idealist.
In spite of these insistent questions and persistent objections, this command of Jesus challenges us with new urgency. Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist.
I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life. He realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. So when Jesus said “Love your enemy,” he was not unmindful of its stringent qualities. Yet he meant every word of it. Our responsibility as Christians is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.
Let us be practical and ask the question, How do we love our enemies?
First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, “I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies …
Now we can see what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” We should be happy that he did not say, “Like your enemies.” It is almost impossible to like some people. “Like” is a sentimental and affectionate word. How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable stumbling blocks in our path? How can we like a person who is threatening our children and bombing our homes? That is impossible. But Jesus recognized that love is greater than like. When Jesus bids us to love our enemies, he is speaking neither of eros nor philia; he is speaking of agape understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. Only by following this way and responding with this type of love are we able to be children of our Father who is in heaven.
Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical why: Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.
Another reason why we must love our enemies is that hate scars the soul and distorts the personality. Mindful that hate is an evil and dangerous force, we too often think of what it does to the person hated. This is understandable, for hate brings irreparable damage to its victims. We have seen its ugly consequences in the ignominious deaths brought to six million Jews by a hate-obsessed madman named Hitler, in the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Negroes by bloodthirsty mobs, in the dark horrors of war, and in the terrible indignities and injustices perpetrated against millions of God’s children by unconscionable oppressors.
But there is another side which we must never overlook. Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.
… A third reason why we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.
— Martin Luther King, Jr. from Strength To Love (Sermon: Loving your Enemies – Christmas 1957 – Dexter Avenue Baptist Church)
To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
C. S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
— Nelson Mandela from Long Walk to Freedom
The Practice of Forgiveness
Even when we understand that forgiveness is essential to our health and happiness, it’s still a challenge to forgive. My friend Rachael admits that, even after accepting an apology, she often continues to hold onto the injury and negative feelings.
“It is very difficult for me to forgive, and I’m not happy or proud about that,” Rachael says. “I completely believe that forgiveness is the best way to go. But apparently my head knows things my heart cannot accomplish.”
Rachael understands forgiveness as a spiritual practice: “We’re supposed to forgive one another ‘seventy times seven,’ and that is just the beginning of how much God forgives us. We need to offer that soul-clearing forgiveness to others.”
You know how difficult feats look simple when professionals perform them? Think of Olympic figure skaters leaping and gliding over the ice, or Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello. They’re so graceful, so joyful. But what we never see is how many times the skaters have fallen or how many times a much less experienced Yo-Yo Ma messed up.
Like so many spiritual practices, we have to work at forgiveness to get better at it.
— Jennifer Grant from Wholehearted Living
I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.
— Khaled Hosseini from The Kite Runner
Forgiveness: The Name of Love in a Wounded World
Forgiveness is made possible by the knowledge that human beings cannot offer us what only God can give. Once we have heard the voice calling us the Beloved, accepted the gift of full communion, and claimed the first unconditional love, we can see easily–with the eyes of a repentant heart– how we have demanded of people a love that only God can give. It is the knowledge of that first love that allows us to forgive those who have only a “second” love to offer.
I am struck by how I cling to my own wounded self. Why do I think so much about the people who have offended me or hurt me? Why do I allow them to have so much power over my feelings and emotions? Why can’t I simply be grateful for the good they did and forget about their failures and mistakes? It seems that in order find my place in life I need to be angry, resentful, or hurt. It even seems that these people gave me my identity by the very ways in which they wounded me. Part of me is “the wounded one.” It is hard to know who I am when I can no longer point my finger at someone who is the cause of my pain!…
It is important to understand our suffering. It is often necessary to search for the origins of a suffering. It is often necessary to search for the origins of our mental and emotional struggles and to discover how other people’s actions and our response to their actions have shaped the way we think, feel, and act. Most of all, it is freeing to become aware that we do not have to be victims of our past and can learn new ways of responding. But there is a step beyond the recognition and identification of the facts of life. There is even a step beyond choosing how to live our own life story. It is the greatest step a human being can take. It is the step of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour– unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family. The voice that calls us the Beloved is the voice of freedom because it sets us free to love without wanting anything in return. This has nothing to do with self-sacrifice, self-denial, or self-depreciation. But it has everything to do with the abundance of love that has been freely given to me and from which I freely want to give.
— Henri Nouwen from Weavings (A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. VII, Number 2, March/April, 1992, p. 10)