“But for you listeners, I tell you: Love your enemies. Do good for those who hate you. Bless those who call down curses on you. Pray for those who belittle you. To anyone who punches you on the cheek: Offer the other too. To anyone who demands a coat from you: Don’t hold onto the tunic too. Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand back what’s been taken from you. If you want people to do for you, do likewise for them.”
Whenever preachers and ministers talk about how Jesus taught us followers to love our enemies, most of the time you can count on ’em to tell us Jesus wasn’t kidding. We actually do need to love our enemies. Might be hard. Might be darn near impossible. But Jesus said to do it. So we gotta.
But when other individuals, including Christians, bring up the subject, we’re all over the place. Some of us agree with the ministers: Jesus ordered it, so we gotta. But far too often, we insist on adopting another definition of love so we can find it easier to “love” them.
“When Jesus told us to love enemies, he didn’t mean we should love-love them. The sort of love he meant is ‘wanting what’s best for others.’ So that’s how he meant for us to love them: We should want the best for them.”
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And every so often, the “best for them” includes their comeuppance. A bit of bad fortune. Getting sacked. Getting beaten. Getting arrested. Getting evicted. Best thing for them… and pretty darn entertaining for us. Revenge just can’t help but seep into many people’s discussions about enemies.
Sometimes it’s nothing we’ve inflicted upon them; sometimes we’re merely letting them stew in their own juices. We’ve forgiven them and moved on. Whereas they still hate us, and their hatred just festers inside them, and eats them alive. So we’re told loving our enemies is the best revenge. There’s a quip commonly attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” The T-shirt version is probably a lot more familiar: “Love your enemies. It really pisses them off.”
We can even find this sentiment in the bible.
- If your hater is hungry, give him bread.
- If thirsty, give him water to drink.
- This way, you pile embers on his head.
- The LORD will repay you.
- If thirsty, give him water to drink.
(There’s a newly-popular interpretation which says ancient people used to bring fire to their neighbors by carrying a pot of embers on their heads, so this verse is actually a blessing. There are many problems with this idea. Historical: No historical or archaeological evidence for any such thing in ancient Hebrew culture; if they brought fire to neighbors it was with tongs, or in a lamp; other ancients knew of no such thing, and interpreted this verse as a curse, not a blessing. And grammatical: If he’s bringing you fire, he’s not much of an enemy; if you’re giving him the embers back, it’s not much of a blessing.)
But for those of us who recognize feelings of vengeance are wrong, we go to the other extreme. “Love your enemies” certainly isn’t about passive-aggressive revenge. Instead, it’s just passive. Love them by leaving them be. Distance yourself from them. Since “love” means we want the best for them, and revenge isn’t the best for them, the best way to do them no harm, yet not let them bother us any longer, is to step away. I’ve even heard this interpretation from preachers. “Love and forgive your enemies, but that doesn’t mean you need have anything more to do with them. Don’t take revenge; don’t do anything. Just leave them to themselves. You’re not their doormat.” Love is apathy.
Of course, all this spin and doubletalk means people are dodging the clear, obvious meaning of “Love your enemies.” Because we don’t want to love our enemies. Because they’re our freaking enemies, for crying out loud: Somebody needs to smite them. Either God needs to do it, or God needs to deputize us, because they need smiting!
Jesus didn’t say it’d be easy.
One of the most obvious signs of a fake Christian is when we’re caught trying to weasel out of “Love your enemies.” True Christians realize Jesus meant it. True Christians take him seriously, and try to obey.
Fake Christians try to redefine his command. Fake love follows one of the existing popular definitions of love, or it’s a newly invented definition—one which lacks patience, kindness, selflessness, gentility, forgiveness, goodness, honesty, persistence, fidelity, hope, and endurance.
Fake Christians don’t struggle at all with loving their enemies: Our redefinitions make it really easy. We can continue to “love” them, yet refuse to forgive them or be gracious, and pursue legal or social ways to knock ’em down a few pegs. It’s fake love, so really we go right on hating our enemies.
Or when we “love” enemies by ignoring them—when we leave them be, wish them well, and even invent some warm fuzzy feelings about them while we keep our distance—there are a whole lot of acts of love we simply can’t practice upon them. Can’t be patient and faithful and persistent towards someone who’s not around. Passivity clearly isn’t love any more than concealed hatred.
Loving your abuser.
What might help you understand how loving your enemy is meant to work, is by looking at the way many abuse victims love their abusers.
If you’ve never been abused, or you have been abused but never loved your abuser, this is gonna be hard to understand. Obviously an abuser is an enemy. By the very fact they abuse you, they’re your enemy. As far as our culture is concerned—and many Christians have wholly signed on to this idea—if you love someone who abuses you, you’re a fool.
Imagine a woman whose boyfriend beats her senseless. Yet after she gets out of hospital, she goes right back to him, and even defends him when he’s put on trial. The rest of the world reacts in horror: “How could she possibly do that? Where’s her sense? He beats her! Doesn’t she realize he’s an enemy?” Well no, she doesn’t. Because she loves him. She fell in love with him despite the beatings. She finds it easy to forgive what most of us would consider unforgivable. We would throw him in prison, and joke about how he’ll get an even worse beating, and maybe a bit of a rape, from the felons. She would turn the other cheek.
No, she doesn’t quite realize she’s loving her enemy. But she is. When you truly love your enemies, they’re not easy to imagine as enemies.
Other abuse victims don’t love their abusers, and never did. They know their abusers are their enemies. That’s why they plot revenge, or a form of “justice” which hurts the abuser. They can’t possibly imagine forgiving their abusers, or imagine establishing any healthy relationship with them. If you were to suggest they forgive their abusers, they’d consider you ridiculous at best; and at worst, someone just as emotionally abusive as the person who abused them.
But loving one’s enemies looks exactly like the abused woman who goes back to her boyfriend.
And if that offends you, well, that’s normal. That’s probably how Jesus’s listeners took it when he first started talking about this “turn the other cheek” rubbish.
Contrary to human nature.
You see, forgiveness goes against human nature. Treating our foes better than they deserve is, like forgiving an abusive boyfriend, foolish and stupid and outrageous. Human nature is as Lemékh described it in Genesis.
- Lemékh says to his women, Adá and Zillá:
- “Listen to my voice, Lemékh’s women.
- Give your ears to my saying:
- I killed a man for my injury.
I killeda boy for my bruising:
- Seven will die in revenge
ifCain is killed.
ifLemékh is killed.”
- “Listen to my voice, Lemékh’s women.
We often say human nature is eye for an eye, but that’s far from true. God had to legislate eye for an eye. Human nature is to overkill. It’s not bruise for bruise, insult for insult. It’s “You insulted me, so I kill your family, make you watch, then kill you last.” Reciprocity is a significant improvement on what humans usually do in response—and still Jesus expects better of us.
That’s why all the irritation when we talk about loving one’s enemies, or the outright fury over the abused woman who goes back to her abusive boyfriend. When people are that kind of forgiving, we figure they gotta have something wrong with them. They must have really low self-esteem, and figure they can’t do any better, or aren’t worth any better, than their abuser. They must be masochists who enjoy abuse. We never factor love and forgiveness into the equation. And when we do, it comes with all sorts of caveats: “Okay, forgive him. But you’re nuts to ever, ever be in the same room with him again.”
Because that’s the way the world works. That’s the way human nature works. We don’t love enemies. The near-universal response to such an idea is to rescue that woman, whether she wants it or not; and kill (or at least horribly take vengeance on) that boyfriend.
But love doesn’t want revenge. When my dad beat me, sometimes with a stick, sometimes with his fists, I admit there were times I wished I could beat him back. But that wore off. Love puts thoughts of revenge away. That’s why police, when they try to arrest wife-beaters, often find themselves attacked by the beaten wife herself: She doesn’t want vengeance upon her abuser. She loves him.
Do bear in mind I’m in no way excusing abusers. Spouse-beaters, child-beaters, child-molesters, any abusers, need to go to prison for the sake of society. When I find out about such behavior, I never keep it to myself, no matter how much people beg me: I call the police. As one should. There are, and should be, legal consequences for abuse. I have no problem when abusers suffer them. I never want people to go back to their abusers for more. Christians are meant to remove suffering from the world, not look the other way.
But at the same time, forgiveness of one’s enemy is entirely right and Christlike. That’s loving your enemies. Don’t let them hurt you. Do love them.
Like I said, it’s not easy.
“Does this mean we should love the devil?”
This is one of the more common questions I get whenever I talk about loving our enemies: “What about the devil? Satan’s our enemy. Does ‘love your enemy’ include loving the devil?”
Most Christians consider this a dumb question: Of course, they say, we should hate the devil. The devil is the enemy of everything good. It’s sin incarnate. Just as we ought to hate sin, we should hate the devil with what they call “a perfect hatred.”
Two big problems with this idea.
Hate corrupts the hater. Humans are creatures of extremes, and we can’t hate without either underdoing it (which means we don’t hate at all, which isn’t so much a problem) or overdoing it. Hate is particularly easy to turn into a crazy obsession. Imagine I hate coffee. (I know; it’s near impossible. But try.) Underdoing this hate means I don’t care for the flavor, and avoid it when possible; to most people it doesn’t look like hatred, but simply a choice against coffee. Overdoing this hate means I want coffee banned from my presence altogether: I don’t want to smell it, see it, or even be reminded it’s there. If someone drinks it, I’ll rant against it. If I had my druthers I’d have it banned from every supermarket and restaurant. In my wilder fantasies, I’ll talk about inventing a coffee-destroying virus which will render the tree extinct. And if I ever learn genetic engineering, and at the same time lose my mind, God help the world: I just might turn supervillain on you.
Well, some Christians get just this kind of screwy about the devil. Or other things they hate, whether it be other religions, cults, other denominations, political opponents, and the like. They can’t hate sin in a way where they avoid the sin and discourage it in others: They gotta pass laws against every little thing they disapprove of, and threaten fellow Christians with hell if we dare to dabble in it. They go all supervillain on us: Anyone who commits such sins should never be forgiven, and killed in nasty ways. And so on.
When we hate, that risk of obsession is always there. It seems to always grow fastest whenever we hate people. Might be an individual, might be a group, but it’s always far too quick to go from, “I just don’t like that guy” to “Kill them all.” History is full of examples.
Same with the devil. Because the devil’s not a concept: It’s a person. An evil person, but still: I’ve met far too many Christians who obsess over the devil. They want to know all about it. They want to fight it. They want to kill it, as if that were possible. They want to destroy all the devil’s supporters—sometimes just the spiritual ones, but often the human ones too.
Hating the devil, to any degree beyond resisting it, always warps Christians. That’s why I never recommend it. The devil will take your hatred of it and encourage this hatred to run wild. And Christians will let it run wild, because we figure hating the devil is the only okay exception to hatred. As a result, the devil turns such people into the least effective Christians, too hate-filled to love anyone or anything. Including God.
The other big problem is the scriptures: Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” He didn’t add, “Except the devil. It’s okay to hate the devil.” Jesus doesn’t grant indulgences to hate anyone. Mostly for the reason I stated above: Hatred corrupts.
So does that mean we’re to love the devil? Well, establishing any kind of healthy relationship with the devil is out: James told us to resist the devil, and once we do, it’ll flee. Jesus told us there’s no trusting the devil, so if we’re hoping there’s any goodness in the devil to draw out, it’s a false hope. The devil will only use our naïveté to mess with us further.
But our behavior towards the devil should—no, I’m not kidding—reflect love! It should be patient and kind, even though the devil deserves no such patience or kindness. It shouldn’t be jealous (as if the devil has anything we want), boastful, proud, rude, self-centered, irritable, lying, quitting, hopeless, faithless, or have no endurance. And if that’s the way we behave, that’s love. So should we love the devil? In following it, or embracing what it stands for, absolutely not. But in our actions towards it, yes.
When you see fellow Christians gleefully bash the devil, who figure it’s their opportunity to take a break from Spirit-led behavior, tell ’em to cut it out. Again, not because the devil—or any enemy—deserves our love. Only because we’re never to stop exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. Most importantly love.