I was browsing Twitter the other day, and I saw a post from someone who asked a question I’ve been seeing a lot, lately. She listed the labels for the people she is politically divided from in our country and then she listed the things they do, say, and believe that she disdains. She used the harshest and most hyperbolic labels, which is pretty typical right now. The labels were reductive and cast a group comprised of tens of millions of her countrymen in the harshest light with the harshest motives possible. Don’t judge her for that. Most of us have done it, too, and millions of us do it over and over again on a daily basis. After presenting her list, she asked, “How, as a Christian, am I supposed to love these people?”
It was a sincere question, and many people are asking it right now in some form or other. It’s an ancient question, and now it is our generation’s turn to face it.
How do we love our enemies?
Whenever I ponder the difficulty of loving enemies, I think of Jonah. God sent Jonah to Nineveh to prophesy, but Jonah ran as far from Nineveh as the known world would allow him to go. Why did he do this? He did it because he hated the Assyrians so much that he couldn’t bring himself to offer them God’s grace. He wanted to stop God from redeeming them and forgiving their sins. Given how applicable that story is to our current situation, the first thing I would tell anyone struggling with this is, “open your Bible and revisit Jonah.” Really read it. God asked Jonah to bring His message of forgiveness and redemption to a people who had slaughtered, plundered, raped, and terrorized their way across the known world, and Jonah could not bear it. God was asking Jonah to love his enemy.
The difference between us and Jonah is that we’ve got Jesus. Those who put their faith in Jesus as the Christ have the Holy Spirit within them wherever they go. Jonah couldn’t make himself love his enemy, but we can. We have been equipped to love our enemies. We have been commanded to love our enemies. We have been commissioned by God to show them mercy and bring them to Christ. We’ve been given the very same job that God gave to Jonah, and Jesus was crystalline on this point. We can love our enemies…and we must. It is the only way.
I’ve written in the past about my childhood relationship with church. I was raised in two very different traditions of Christianity. I “got saved” in one and confirmed in the other, but I entered adulthood as a non-believer. I wasn’t even a theist, much less a Christian. When I was finally given the gift of belief in early 2017, I had an experience that has not been repeated (it doesn’t need to be), and my faith was no longer a question. I believe and I will always believe, and what was given to me that day will not ever be taken from me.
Having said that, I still wasn’t so sure about the “saved” part and the “changed” part. The whole concept of sanctification or regeneration was difficult for me back then. Those are theological words, and though I enjoy learning things, I dislike jargon of every sort. Academia loves jargon–LOVES it–and theology is no different. I believe that jargon divides people, so instead of using theological terms, I’m just going to tell you a story about the day after I was saved.
The miracle happened the day I read Leviticus, chapter 17. I got up that morning as a lifelong agnostic. I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit as I read Leviticus 17:11. I fell asleep about an hour later as a Christian. It was that simple, and it happened that quickly. When I woke up the following day, I was still a little euphoric and lightheaded from the experience. Most new Christians walk around on a “Jesus high” for a while, and many Christians spend the rest of their faith lives chasing that sensation. On my first morning as a newly-minted follower of Christ, my blood was thrumming with leftover endorphins…and I needed it to stop.
I strongly dislike any sensation of heightened emotion. I don’t trust feelings because feelings are transient. They change. They go away. I didn’t want to feel; I wanted to know. I needed to be able to trust this new belief. What I did next might seem strange to some people, but it was very natural to me: I prayed for God to make the Jesus high go away. I wanted the feelings to leave so that the faith would be something I could lean on and believe in.
He did that for me. He gave me belief in a moment, and he took the euphoria away when I asked him to, right there by my nightstand. I smiled at this continuation of “proof,” and I would have shed tears of relief if I were the kind of person who could let go enough to cry. I’m not, so I didn’t. I just breathed deeply in gratitude as the weight of life settled back over me. God is so good to us, even when we don’t make any sense.
I got in the car with my daughter to drive her to school, and we were halfway there when we hit the worst intersection of our commute. This is the part of our drive when swear words typically start leaving my mouth and my frustration meter shoves toward the red line. Like clockwork, a woman in a minivan (I’ll never forget it…it was tan with a set of family stick figure stickers on the back window) cut me off as the light turned yellow, and I very nearly ran into her. I had to slam on the brakes so hard that my daughter yelped from the back seat.
This normally would have set me off into anxiety and frustration and resentment, but it didn’t. Instead of experiencing my typical road rage, I felt the opposite. I was terrified for that woman and the children in the van with her. My eyes scanned the intersection, and another wave hit me. I loved every single person in every single one of those vehicles. I live in a big urban area. There were hundreds of people at this traffic light, and I felt the weight of each of their precious lives at a glance. I was totally undone, and tears threatened for the second time in one morning. Given that I shed a handful of tears maybe once every other year, this was a big deal. This was emotional overload. I was drowning in feelings. I had literally just prayed for God to take feelings away, and then he hit me with a motherlode an hour later. God has a sense of humor, no?
Anyway, that’s how I knew it was real this time. That’s how I knew I was “really saved.” My first day as a Christian illustrated to me that a foundational “thing” about belonging to Jesus was loving people–all of the people.
It hasn’t stopped happening. I still look around at the people in the store, the crowds on television, or the other cars in traffic, and I am consumed with an overpowering sense of love and care for them. I feel that love for you, and I feel that love for any human being you care to mention. All of them. It’s infuriating, but it’s true. For a skeptical, emotionally cold person like me to love you and all of those other people I’ve never met and might not even like is 100% about Jesus. I didn’t get there on my own. The day before I met Jesus, I was over 40 years old and had never learned to feel love or even toleration for people I did not like. The day after I met Jesus, it was demonstrated to me that I have the power to love every person on this earth in a sincere way.
In light of all I just told you, the second thing I would tell people who struggle with loving enemies is, “The Spirit of God inside you will show you how to love them.” Ask. Get on your knees and ask him to show you.
This last bit, which leads to the third and final thing I’d say to anyone who struggles to love his enemy, is the hardest. It’s the hardest because it’s the part that requires us to let go of our pride, to let go of being right, to let go of being wronged, and to humble ourselves. This, I have found, is the hardest part of being a human. It’s the part that allows us to apologize when we are wrong, and it is the part that allows us to place other people before ourselves. It’s love. It’s real love. It’s not the kind that makes us feel all floaty and euphoric. It’s the kind that drives parents to persevere with non-compliant children. It’s the kind that drives teachers to persevere with failing students. It’s the kind that lets us forgive friends who’ve stepped over a line. It’s the kind of love that God has given to us from a higher place.
He’s the one who never leaves the one behind.
I am a sinner. I have sinned against God every day of my life, and I will likely continue to sin against God every day that he chooses to give me life on this earth. My human nature is corrupted by sin, and every motivation of my heart, without God’s grace, is twisted to selfishness, pride, and conceit. My dearest brothers and sisters, so are yours.
You must understand and accept that you are not better than your enemy. Introspection and examination of conscience (an orthodox and Catholic practice that, generally speaking, Protestants give far too little emphasis) are an important key to loving your enemies. When I understand that I am a sinner who was not worthy of redemption and that my works are but rags before the Lord, it is much easier to cast my gaze upon my enemy with mercy and forgiveness. God loves all of us. Every human who has ever lived or will ever live was animated by the breath of God and created in His image. Each of them is as precious to God as I am and you are. Every. Single. One.
Who am I to judge the worth of my enemy’s soul? Who are you?
No buts. Serial killers and war criminals and people far worse than your obnoxious neighbor who votes differently than you do and your odious aunt who says intolerant or ignorant things every time you have to eat with her over a holiday…God loves them all. The loss of any one of them is worth grieving over. God grieves over the loss of the one. So should we.
The third thing I’d say to someone struggling to love his/her enemy is, “Convert your anger to grief.” Grief, not anger, is the appropriate response. Grieve over the sins you see being committed. Let go of your right to be angry. Anger puffs us up. Anger makes us feel righteous. Anger makes us feel superior. I have no right to feel puffed up or righteous or superior. I am as guilty and as undeserving as they are. So are you.
We love because God loved us first. If you want to change people, and if you want to follow the example of Christ, then you must love your enemies. You can. With God’s help, you can. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t natural, but it is very simple.
Thank you for reading my scribbles. See you next time.