How many times have we been told the message, “Love your enemies?” To hear it is one thing, but to put it into practice is quite another. So many times we say to ourselves, “Yep. I love my enemies. Sure, I do. Heck, I don’t even really have any enemies.” And we check that box off and we move along with our day … and we continue loving the people in our lives who are the easiest to love.
It can be tempting to remain wrapped up in our little bubble here on the hill, where most people we encounter in a day are genuinely nice, where people are holding doors for each other left and right, where friends wave to each other on the way to class and where people who just met for the first time greet each other with a hug anyway.
We find ourselves naturally loving these people who love us back, and we feel pretty good about ourselves at the end of the day.
But what about when we go home? Or when we graduate, for that matter? None of us have to be told that the world outside of Franciscan is a much harsher reality. That world is one where not everyone around us is like-minded. It is a world of messiness and raw, un-sugarcoated conflict.
At school, if friends have a disagreement, it often remains just that — a disagreement, which is talked through and hopefully resolved. But in the outside world, things that should remain minor disagreements can escalate into arguments and wounds that fester and cause relationships to barely hang on, if not fall apart all together.
And the outside world tells us to give up on these relationships when they get difficult. How are we to hold true to loving people when they give us nothing in return, or worse yet, when they hurt us in return? Sometimes, it feels like the world might just be right, and giving up seems to make more sense.
What makes an enemy? I think the most common steps for the formation of an enemy are as follows: you meet someone and over time, you reveal more and more of yourself to them. You let them into your vulnerabilities and you depend on them. And then they hurt you … bad.
Maybe they go so far as to intentionally use your vulnerabilities against you or maybe they unintentionally hurt you but in a way that makes you question why you ever let them in in the first place. It hurts the most when we are hurt by the ones we care the most about.
Our defense mechanism sounds something like this: You are my enemy now. If I make you my enemy, you cannot hurt me again, because I will not make the mistake of letting you in again. Furthermore, I will seek to avenge my pain by making my enemy feel that same pain.
Oftentimes, we fear that loving enemies (or worse, forgiving them) will delegitimize our pain and will let them off the hook to walk on us all over again.
Sometimes it even feels like we’d rather just have all of our relationships remain superficial and never fully let anyone in so that we could avoid conflict and avoid getting hurt at all.
But the epitome of true love is the risk that is inherent to it. If we are not vulnerable with people, they can never truly know us and consequently, they can never truly love us to the fullest extent, because they will only be loving a censored portion of us that we let them see.
True love is not self-seeking (1 Corinthians 13). The truest example of love that we have to refer to is Christ’s death on the Cross, when he literally laid down his life for the very people who were killing him.
He loved with full knowledge that many people would reject his love, yet he chose to love anyway. Sacrifice is the best test of whether love is true. Furthermore, true love has no conditions.
So, if we return to our previous question — “How are we to hold true to loving people when they give us nothing or hurt us in return?” — we can see that both of these examples are more true to the definition of love than anything else is. Real love does not seek compensation.
So, is loving people who love us back wrong? No. But does loving people simply because they love us even qualify as actual love? That is for you to decide.
What does loving our enemies practically look like?
Well, for one thing, it does not mean letting people walk all over you. It does not mean excusing wrong actions and pretending they never happened. It does not mean burying pain. What it does mean is treating those who have hurt us with the same mercy that Christ treated us with when he died for each of us on the cross.
In practice, I’ve found that loving enemies often requires one of two things: either giving when you feel like withholding or withholding when you feel like exploding.
Christ held nothing back from us on the cross, so we should not deprive others of our love by being cold, passive-aggressive, dismissive or altogether absent from them. Conversely, Christ exercised restraint on the cross when he humbly accepted the ridicule of his persecutors.
Likewise, we can refrain from lashing out at people verbally or physically, even when they hurt us. This type of self-control that sacrificial love demands is not easy at all. Sometimes, it feels physically painful to exercise self-control because it demands that we don’t put our defenses up.
It might feel like a dropping sensation in the pit of your stomach because you fear you’re unprotected, that you’ve opened yourself up again to have someone stick a knife into an old and already scarring wound.
But when we open ourselves up to loving enemies, Christ is with us the entire time and he brings only good out of it. He would not ask us to do something that would harm us.
We cannot love our enemies on our own. Only by the grace of God is it possible. But if we ask for his help, we can love our enemies just like he did, and we can get one step closer to healing, so that maybe those people won’t remain enemies forever.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8
“Be kind and loving to each other, and forgive each other just as God forgave you in Christ.” – Ephesians 4:32