In all of Christian teaching, I do not believe there is a more disliked instruction than to “Love your enemies as yourself.” But what does it mean to love our enemies and forgive those who come against us?
When Jesus tells us in the sermon on the mount to love our enemies it, understandably, makes us a little uncomfortable. Ok, I lie, it makes us a great deal uncomfortable. But as I’ve continued to grow in my Christian walk I have, consequently, run into quite a few people who, shall I say, weren’t awfully fond of me. And every time I come across these people I find that I always have the same desire for them: I want them to be punished. I want some kind of retribution for what they put me or my family through. If they’ve treated my family with utter disrespect or malice I hope that they too would be handed the same. However, I’m going to begin this post with a thought that may seem quite bold and contrary to what we’ve typically come to believe this passage means.
To desire punishment or justice for our enemies is not wrong. In fact, it is a very noble thing to wish for.
Now, before I fall any further into this hole I want to take a step back and make clear what I am not arguing. I am not saying a lust for punishment or discipline is right. I am not saying that it is good to take pleasure in the inevitable punishment of our enemies, which is a feeling that I have regretfully experienced many times. To explain why I say a desire for punishment is a good thing, we need to understand what it means to love our enemies.
And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:31)
To understand what it means to love our enemies we must first seek to understand what it means to love ourselves. This is a verse that, although oft-quoted, is not widely understood. I can say that “I love myself,” but what do I mean exactly? Am I saying that I think I’m a swell guy? Am I saying that I’m attractive? My love would be terribly shallow if that were the only reason. Maybe I love myself because of the life I live. I have a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in, and a number of luxuries many, unfortunately, do not have access to. If so, I would only say I love myself because I love what I have more. If all that were to be stripped away would I say the same?
I do love myself, but that is not because I think I’m a good person. I can be a downright rotten person at times. I can be overly self-righteous, lazy, prideful, you name it, I’ve felt and done it. If this is so then it follows that loving our enemies does not mean that we should learn to think of them as good people. We can go a step further and say that I have done things that I look back on and deeply loathe and regret. Thus, I can rightly loathe the things my enemies have done. And, obviously, loving them does not mean we find them or the lives they live attractive or desirable.
Yet, despite hating the sin I continually stumble over, I continue to love myself anyway. I continue to want to do to better. I continue to try and live righteously. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase we’ve heard said time and again, but it carries a truth many of us need to be reminded of. I can hate the sin of my enemy, but I cannot hate my enemy himself just as I do not hate myself and wish the worst for myself when I mess up. Likewise, God hates the sin His creation commits, but He desperately wants to see them turn to Him, repent, and be made human again.
I’ll reiterate my initial statement: The desire for punishment and/or justice is a good thing if it’s rooted in the hope that it’ll change them. When I mess up I try to discipline myself so that I will not mess up again. When we see our enemies reap what they have sown we should say “Good, let’s hope that they’ll learn from it and change” and not “Good, they’re getting their just desserts!” The desire for justice is right and noble but we should not take pleasure in its execution, as difficult as it can be. To this effect, C.S. Lewis writes,
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if allowed to the end, will make us into devils….one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.”
This is all very difficult to swallow because it’s an instruction that commands us to love the unlovable and hope for the good in those who appear to have none. But then, can we argue for ourselves any differently? Before we were redeemed by the shed blood of Christ, were we able to show off a couple of clean, white patches on our black canvas?
This is why the love of Jesus is something truly astounding. He loves us even though there is no good in us, and because He loves us, we then have the ability to love ourselves and desire to live a life that is pleasing to Him. If we love our enemies, we should hope that they will one day strive to do the same.