The What and How of Loving Our Enemies
By Russell St. John
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Some time ago my wife showed me an ugly Facebook exchange between our then junior high son and his friend. Both boys sinned, engaging in name-calling and retaliation. Neither displayed much restraint. When I spoke with my son about his conduct, he defended himself by exclaiming, “But he was being a jerk!” And it was true. The boy’s words accused him. But as I replied to my son, I said, “That may be true, but that is not how we conduct ourselves as believers. We do not retaliate. We do not use words as weapons. Christ calls us to love even our enemies. What might have been the result if you had prayed for this boy rather than insulted him?” Even as I spoke, I stood convicted. The apple had not fallen far from the tree, for loving my enemies has not come easily to me either. Maybe it has been a struggle for you as well.

Struggle notwithstanding, Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:44-45, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

What does this mean, and how can you and I love our enemies more consistently? Maybe it’s best to begin by asking, “Who is my enemy?” The answer requires some digging into the Scripture and reveals that our biblical enemies comprise three categories of people.

Categories of “Enemies”

The first category of enemies is composed of those who actively persecute you. Whereas in Matthew 5, Jesus labels “those who persecute you” as enemies, in Luke 6:27-28 he also refers to “those who hate you,” “those who curse you,” and “those who abuse you.” Some of you have endured the mild scorn of a Facebook troll calling you a “hater” for expressing your Christian beliefs. Brothers and sisters halfway around the world have suffered martyrdom at the hands of a radical Muslim wielding a machete. No matter how mild or severe, those who commit active evil against you for your faith qualify as your enemies, and by so doing they qualify themselves as enemies of Jesus as well.

Jesus takes the persecution of His people personally. Although Saul the Pharisee persecuted Christians and not Christ, Jesus nevertheless cried out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus’ words make perfect sense given that those who are in Christ by faith are together His Bride, whom He loves (Revelation 21:9), and His Body, of which He is Head (Colossians 1:18). You cannot sin against a Christian without sinning against the Christ. Those who actively persecute you for your faith rightly stand as your enemies.

In order to love your enemy, it helps to understand that your enemy is not only your enemy. Your enemy is also your neighbor.

The second category of enemies is composed of those who, while not personally persecuting you, nevertheless actively align themselves against the Lord. God’s people ought to count His enemies as our enemies. In Psalm 2:2, the “kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his anointed,” and in Psalm 139:21-22 David declares his allegiance to the Lord, asking, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” Every redeemed breast should beat with jealousy for the Lord when a virulent atheist such as Richard Dawkins refers to God as “a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Those who hate your God, while they may not be actively persecuting you personally, nevertheless qualify as your enemies, for they are surely His.

The third category of enemies is composed of those whose love for the world causes them to neglect the Lord, passively refusing to serve Him by actively pursuing their idols. Most of the American populace likely falls into this category. The American gods of materialism, affluence, success, pleasure, and personal freedom enslave many, and maybe you also have had the experience of passionately witnessing to a lost friend or coworker only to have them respond, “I’m glad that works for you,” seemingly indifferent to the mercy offered in Christ. James 4:4 helps us to understand such people when James teaches that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” As Jesus Himself said in Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Even those who are not actively persecuting you or raging against the Lord, but who are pursuing the world rather than Christ, are in some sense making themselves God’s enemies, and therefore yours as well.

Who, then, is your enemy? Those who persecute you, those who oppose the Lord, and those who chase the world.

What Does it Mean to “Love” an Enemy?

In order to love your enemy, it helps to understand that your enemy is not only your enemy. Your enemy is also your neighbor. Every human being bears the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and that includes your enemy. You are indeed your brother’s keeper (Genesis 4:9), and that includes your enemy. Every person is truly your neighbor (Luke 10:29-37), and that includes your enemy. Christ’s teaching in Matthew 22:39 therefore applies to your enemies. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and He called this the second greatest commandment — second only to loving the Lord. If any one of us wants to fulfill this commandment, then we must think biblically about what it means to love our enemies, for your enemies are also your neighbors.

The Apostle Paul helps us understand just how to love our enemies. In the great “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes in verses 4-6, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” These words fly in the face of modern, sentimental, American notions of love. Paul does not say, “Love is a passionate feeling, a warm glow. Love is a strong emotion, bursting forth in kittens and cotton candy. Love is feeling gooey toward another person, a romantic comedy with a heartwarming ending.” Instead, Paul describes love as a series of sober choices that issue forth in a series of biblical actions. Love is what you do and don’t do, regardless of how you feel. Love acts toward God and man in such a way that God is glorified and man is edified.

Love therefore obeys the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12). That means love makes the coffee for your spouse in the morning because you appreciate it when your spouse does that for you. Love “count[s] others more significant” than yourself and looks “not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). That means love buys extra toilet paper, not to hoard it for yourself but to distribute it to those in need. Love “visit[s] widows and orphans in their affliction” (James 1:27).

That means love fosters a child, and love invites a widow to join your family for a walk in the park. Love “show[s] hospitality to strangers” and “remember[s] those who are in prison” (Hebrews 13:2-3). That means love invites a visiting family to your home for lunch after church, and love keeps correspondence with prisoners who are far off. Love “outdo[es] one another in showing honor” and “contribute[s] to the needs of the saints” (Romans 12:10-13). That means love pays the final semester’s tuition for the college student in your church whose loan money has run out. Love “live[s] in harmony with one another” and “associate[s] with the lowly” (Romans 12:16). That means love speaks with the same dignity to your garbageman as you do to your physician. We could pile up Scripture upon Scripture and example upon example to teach what love does, for love is an action.

But sometimes piling up individual instructions and examples gets overwhelming, and often it helps if we think in terms of broader principles of conduct. So here are three basic principles for how love acts toward your enemies, who also are your neighbors.

Principles of Love as Action

Principle 1: When you love your enemy, you will act in truth, not out of feeling.

Feelings are powerful things. But what you feel and what is right are often very different, and Christians are called to act upon truth rather than feeling. A classic example is Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:26, in which he says, “Be angry and do not sin.” Paul does not say, “Do not feel anger,” but rather, “Although you feel angry, do not use your anger as an excuse to sin against your neighbor.”

Pause for a moment to consider how you feel in certain situations. How do you feel when a driver cuts you off in traffic, when a co-worker steals credit for work you’ve done, or when your teenage daughter rolls her eyes at you? What witness would you offer to a dying world if, in each of these instances, you acted according to how you felt? When I treat a person as the Scripture commands, I am loving my enemy, but when I treat a person as I feel, I am often acting in spite, malice, envy, or jealousy — in short, I’m acting in the same way my enemy often does!

And that’s just the point: My conduct toward you must not be shaped by your conduct toward me, or by how I feel about your conduct toward me. I must shape my conduct according to the commands of Scripture, living out the character of Christ toward you. If you treat others how you feel, you will often treat them terribly, but if you treat others according to the truth of God’s Word, you will act in love toward them in spite of how you may feel about them.

Principle 2: When you love your enemy, you will act in mercy, not out of vengeance.

We all know the King James: “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the LORD” (Romans 12:19). It is God’s to avenge sin, not yours or mine. If I treat you according to how you have treated me, I am not loving you. I am repaying you good for good or evil for evil. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. But this is not love. Rather love is full of mercy, and mercy is not giving to another what they do deserve. When God acts in mercy toward a sinner, He does not give that sinner what the sinner does in fact deserve.

Christians are forbidden to repay evil for evil — to take vengeance — and must instead act in mercy, leaving vengeance to the Lord. In 1 Peter 2:21, Peter teaches that in the nonretaliatory suffering of Christ we have “an example to follow.” And in verse 23 Peter says, “When he [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Jesus did not repay others according to what they had done to Him. He showed them mercy, and while the day of mercy will one day end, for now the Lord is “patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Stephen was a regular Christian, like you and me, and yet when his enemies were in the very act of murdering him, he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

As he wrestled with Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies, Martyn Lloyd-Jones encouraged believers to act in mercy by reminding us that our enemies are, in a very real sense, enslaved to sin, and are thus “dupes of Satan” and “governed by the god of this world.” Yes, the actions of our enemies are still evil, and they still stand responsible for their own moral transgressions. But it is also true that they suffer under the thrall and sway of powers and principalities that war against them, and therefore “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Without salvation in Christ, they will remain helpless, trapped in “sin and misery” (Heidelberg Catechism 2). Lloyd-Jones therefore noted that Christians must continue to view their enemies biblically, “until we see them in such a way that we become sorry for them.” When pity rises in your heart for the plight of your enemies, vengeance will give way to mercy.

Principle 3: When you love your enemy, you will act in self-sacrifice, not out of self-service.

This is what Christ did for you who believe. After His enemies beat and spat upon and maligned and crucified Him, He prayed for them, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus acted in love toward His enemies by seeking their forgiveness before His Father. But He did more than that. He died for His enemies, and you were one of them.

In Romans 5:8, Paul explains, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And not just sinners generically but enemies personally, for Paul continues in verse 10, proclaiming, “[I]f while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” You were, in your sin, God’s enemy, and “like the rest of mankind” you “were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). So was I. Jesus sacrificed His life to change you from an enemy to a friend.

You may be tempted to think, “Yeah, but that was Jesus. Of course he was self-sacrificial. But I’m just a regular Christian, and there’s no way I can do that.” You’re right. Apart from the Holy Spirit teaching you to love, shaping your heart with the gospel, and reproducing the character of Christ in you, you cannot live self-sacrificially for your enemies. You simply won’t love them enough to do so. But what is impossible with man is possible with God, and Scripture gives you great confidence that the Holy Spirit indwells you (2 Corinthians 5:5), produces His fruit in you, among which is love (Galatians 5:22-23), and equips you to walk in a manner worthy of your calling in Christ (Ephesians 5:1).

If you doubt, consider Stephen. He was a regular Christian, like you and me, and yet when his enemies had falsely accused him and were in the very act of murdering him, he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). He loved his enemies as they hated him, even as Christ had done before him, for those whom Christ saves He also teaches and equips to love. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), and Stephen proved it by praying for his persecutors.

The Sum of the Matter

Jesus said that when you love your enemies, you are acting like your Heavenly Father, for “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). His love is an action, and He acts in love toward His enemies, giving not merely sunshine and rain, but also His Son to those whom He has chosen.

If you try to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” trusting in Christ to equip you, you will find it difficult. If you try in your own strength, you will find it impossible. Anger, indignation, and sin will rise up within your heart, and your natural response will often be to resort to retaliation and vengeance rather than mercy and love. But when you recall that you once were God’s enemy and were “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing [y]our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another,” then maybe you also will remember that “when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:3-5). In remembering how your Savior treated you, you can ask Him to equip you to love your enemies. To love your enemy is to recognize that your enemy is also your neighbor, and “love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

My son was right. The boy was being a jerk. But Jesus has called us to love such as these. We must say in own heart, “I was the jerk, the persecutor, and the enemy, and Christ  died for me. How can I not likewise love my enemies?”


Russell St. John is senior pastor of Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church in St. Louis and a visiting lecturer at Covenant Theological Seminary.

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