March 6th, 2013
I’ve been thinking lately about how I’m doing as an enemy-lover. I want to share with you something about my process, and I’d like to invite you to consider making a personal examination of your own. In this time of increasing polarization, I’m watching Christians argue heatedly not only with non-Christians but with each other. But my concern here is not with divisive issues. In fact, I don’t believe it is necessary or even desirable for Christians to be in perfect unison as long as they are doggedly attending to their own consciences and loving one another (check out Romans 14). So my concern is with the heart posture that produces my thoughts and influences my language while I’m fighting the good fight.
The starting point—’love your enemies’, really?
My process begins with looking seriously at what Jesus said:
I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… (Luke 6:27-28)
I want to take this word seriously because the stories I’d heard and read about Christians who radically and impossibly loved and forgave their persecutors were the very stories that first drew me to Jesus. So I want to pay close attention to whether I’m living it out. I don’t want to be found a hypocrite, and I want to keep my promise to follow Jesus. He did say, after all, that I couldn’t expect to be recognizable as his follower unless I’m loving my enemies:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them… (Luke 6:32)
Humanly impossible love served as evidence for me that something greater than flesh was at work—evidence that God had broken into the world and was restoring his image and likeness in people, cultivating in them a family resemblance to himself:
Then …you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35b-36)
Do I really have enemies?
Still, when I was young I thought that “enemies” was an awfully strong word, and I now realize that I took for granted that it would never really be applicable to any of my relationships. I saw myself as always good and kind to others, and I expected to go through life without enemies. But real life turned out to be a humbling experience in that regard. Not only did some people resent and, yes, even hate me despite my best efforts, but I’ve had to admit that I’m not actually as loving as I used to believe. My own capacity for resentment and vindictiveness, once masked by denial, is now apparent to me.
I was amazed at how the everyday chatter in my head, once I actually began to pay attention to it, betrayed the wickedness lurking in the corners of my heart. “I’m so glad I’m not as clueless as that woman!” “Doesn’t that guy know how to use a turn signal?” And dozens of daily emotional responses to people—at work, in town, in the news—that never surface clearly enough to form a phrase. My heart is a fountain of judgment and contempt, clearly un-Christ like, clearly in violation of Jesus’ command to love.
It was tempting to reason that the people I’ve alluded to—with the possible exception of the one who actually hates me—weren’t really my enemies, and that my inner chatter falls somewhere on a spectrum to which “love your enemies” isn’t strictly applicable. But I had to admit that that wasn’t the approach I saw Jesus take to such questions. (Remember that the one who calls someone “fool” is violating the command against murder!) Nor was it the approach that sat right with the Spirit in my heart.
Accuser or Advocate-who is talking?
I began to examine myself more critically. I figured that when I plead technicalities, chances are good I’m listening to the Accuser, not the Advocate. The truth is, the process of wrestling with my heart attitudes in prayer has fully convinced me that, for the purpose of understanding and living out this uniquely Christian command, the true definition of “enemy” is less “someone who is against me” than “someone I am against.”
When a relationship at work became so toxic that I found myself in a constant state of resentment and fear, I began to hear my thoughts in a new way. I was distressed by the vengeful thoughts that came so naturally. Months of dogged prayer gave me some relief from the more overt enmity, but then my flesh found another way to express it as I started petting myself, imagining my “goodness” convicting my enemy before the world.
At that point, I was on to myself. I actually became grateful, realizing that God was using this difficulty and that we were really working toward actual Christ-like enemy-love. Continuing to pay attention to all those inner responses in a normal day revealed that I am actually postured against an awful lot of people.
Loads of ‘enemies’
There are people I find intimidating, people whose lifestyle offends me and people whose opinions are nonsense to me. There are people who behave obnoxiously, people who have committed terrible crimes and people who have merely hurt my feelings. There are people who are against things that I am for and people who are for things I am against. There are people who have wronged my loved ones and people who are just in my way. There are people close to me who are hard to get along with and easy to walk away from. There are people distant from me that my thinking has reduced to mere symbols of their sins, hamstringing my capacity to realize that they are people.
Even the thought, ‘some of these people are Christ’s enemies’, doesn’t work to excuse a posture of enmity. This idea hit home in a new way when I recently observed a Facebook exchange over gun laws. Now, I can admit that Christians of good conscience can come down in different Scripturally legitimate places on the exact meaning of “Thou shalt not kill.” But when someone in the discussion asked the others to imagine what Jesus would have done had he stood between a crazed gunman and 20 kindergartners, some of them said, “There’s no way to know. The situation couldn’t have happened in those days, and there is no way to draw any conclusion.”
That response seemed grounded in defense of the flesh to me. The situation did exist, and Jesus did set us an example. He interposed himself, not just between his friends and Death but also between his enemies and Death, taking the bullet so to speak, and loving everyone on every side exactly as he had enjoined his followers to love, back in Luke 6. And, of course, we know that in terms of their estrangement from God by the sin from which all alike suffer, his friends were his enemies, too. I was his enemy.
No wiggle room
So I have no excuse. No wiggle room. My housecleaning must be thorough. My speech, thoughts and actions must be consistent with love, but even more my fundamental desire for my enemy must be mercy and not judgment, because that is, on the one hand, my fundamental desire for myself and, on the other, God’s active desire as well.
Even though I have been candid about my inner life, what I’ve written here has been mostly of a theoretical nature. Where the rubber meets the road, I have needed much more than personal conviction and reflection. The things I have done to help myself change on the inside as well as to behave consistently, are the stuff of another article. Stay tuned….!