For all of the things we may hate about the internet, there is one thing I think we can all agree is truly fantastic… Stories and pictures of interspecies friendships.
Cats and dogs napping together.
An elephant and a black lab playing.
A gorilla cuddling a kitten.
One of these stories recently caught my eye because it seemed so unlikely. The two species weren’t just uncommon together. They were enemies. Predator and prey. At the Primorsky Safari Park in Russia there is a Siberian tiger named Amur. Twice a week they throw in a live goat for Amur to eat. And every time, he quickly pounces on the goat and devours him.
Until he didn’t.
One morning they threw in a small goat. But he didn’t run when he saw the large tiger. Instead the goat marched fearlessly right up to Amur, and looked him right in the eye.
Amur the tiger stalked off and again the goat didn’t run. No, he started following the tiger around. And it was at that moment, that they became best friends.
Since then the two play together, eat together, and chase each other around. Amur tried to teach the goat to catch prey. The goat taught the tiger to lick a block of salt.
They tried to separate the two but the tiger cried all night, so they have let them stay together. The zookeepers named the goat Timur, which means iron. The only change is that they have switched up Amur’s diet from goats to rabbits.
I love stories like this.
Why wasn’t the goat afraid of the tiger?
Why didn’t the tiger eat him?
How have these two natural enemies become such good friends?
Jesus called us to love our enemies, and in our lives loving enemies is not nearly as cute as a tiger and goat snuggled up together.
This is a really hard teaching for us. It might seem easy at first glance, and for what I’ll call our surface level enemies, this really isn’t all that hard.
These surface level enemies are the people who we put in the enemy category when they do something that irritates us. They block our car in at the grocery store. They let their dog poop in our yard and don’t pick it up. They can’t stop bragging about their promotion when they know we were up for it too. So we hear love your enemies and think,“Sigh. All right Jesus. I’ll try.”
But it’s not so easy with our real enemies. There are two kinds of these. First, there are the enemies that are one group versus another, like enemies in times of war, the kind where life and limb is on the line. Love those enemies, Jesus?
Then there are the second kind of real enemies, the personal ones who have deeply hurt us, or someone we love. The ones whose actions broke our lives into pieces, who destroyed our family, who caused irreparable harm to our spouse or our children.
Love those enemies, Jesus? Really?
Is that really what he is saying? Is that really what it means?
I wrestled with this passage all week because I don’t like it.
I railed against the injustice of it.
I wished it were different.
I poured over commentaries hoping to find a nugget that could make this not mean what it says.
I have seen so many people hurt deeply by awful people. I hoped I could soften it. How about ignore our enemies? Or make a face at our enemies and keep walking?
But that’s not what Jesus says. He says love your enemies, and the whole purpose of Everything Jesus Taught is for us to really see what Jesus calls us to do, even when we don’t like it, even if it’s difficult, even if it doesn’t make sense to us.
One more note about this passage.
Jesus makes an assumption about the people who are listening to this teaching, and that is that they are the victims or wronged party in the situations he is about to talk about. He assumes if they are with him, then of course they would be the ones on the receiving end of persecution, the ones who would have their coat taken, or have someone curse them. There is no teaching here for those that would be the instigator of the problem, the perpetrators of the harm.
Let’s make sure we are on the right side of these hypothetical situations. Because the assumption here is that a follower of Jesus wouldn’t be out there making enemies by going after vulnerable people, or by being a bully. When Jesus makes that kind of assumption, we need to pay attention.
Luke 6:27-36: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies,”
Love your enemies. In English we use the word love to mean lots of things: we fall in love, we love our kids, we love coffee, we love the beach. But in the greek, which is the language this story was originally written in, there are different words for the different kinds of love and this one is not a feeling kind of love. It is different from the love you have for your spouse, and even different from the love you feel for a friend.
The word in greek is agape and it is a willful love. It is a love that involves a decision to love someone, even when they are entirely unloveable, even when they don’t love you back, even when you aren’t feeling that loving toward them. Agape means to decide to love them, and by doing so to wish for their goodwill. Jesus goes on:
“do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,”
This would have struck the listeners at that time as really different, because it was common teaching at the time to love those who love you, and curse those who don’t. (that would make things easier if that’s what he had said) But as Jesus is prone to do, he turns conventional wisdom completely upside down. (Which is why it turns our lives upside down, which is how he gives us life to the fullest) Then he says:
“pray for those who abuse you.”
Pray for those who abuse you.
It sounds easy enough, but have you tried praying for someone that you truly hate? Someone that has hurt you?
It is gut wrenching, soul wrestling, awful work that requires a mighty act of God to will in us. Then Jesus goes on to give some specific examples of what this might look like. They aren’t necessarily literal, any more than the gouging out your eye over sin passage, but there to make the point.
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”
Jesus isn’t necessarily encouraging us to strip down in the streets. But he is teaching about love. This one is illustrative of a debt owed to someone. It would have been a legal action where they take a coat as a repayment of what you owed.
“Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
This is that golden rule we know. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High;”
This phrase “children of the most high” is important. Jesus is using the assumption that a child will be like a parent to show the kind of love we live out for others. Since God loves humans even when they don’t deserve it, children of God would do the same.
“for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Phew. That’s the end.
Love your enemies, Jesus says.
Before we think about what this does mean for you, let’s talk about what it doesn’t.
First, this teaching of Jesus does not mean that if someone has done something horrible to you that it is no big deal.
It is a very big deal.
If someone has hurt you, or someone you love, in a big way, then it is a big deal. Not only to you, but to God. Because it’s sin, and sin would cost Jesus his whole life that they might have a chance at forgiveness. So don’t let anyone pish posh away something that has happened to you by saying it doesn’t’ really matter. It does. Saying sin doesn’t matter means the cross was a waste of time. Because the cross doesn’t make sense if sin isn’t really big, if the things people do to one another weren’t so bad that the only option was for Jesus to die. Enemies that make victims of other people cost God everything.
So loving those real enemies does not mean pretending they didn’t do something horrible.
Second, this passage does not mean you stay in abusive situations, or that you seek out being a victim.
To take this teaching of Jesus and misuse it by applying it to situations in which it was never intended to keep someone in an abusive relationship of any kind goes counter to everything else we see in Jesus’ life and teaching.
Jesus’ life and teaching continually lifted up the oppressed, healed the sick, freed the captive. So if you are in an abusive situation, leave. Tell someone. Get help. There is nothing in this passage that should be heard as a call to stay.
So what does it mean for you to love your enemy?
Let’s remember what the definition of that word for love was. It means to love them in a way that wills their good as a decision, not a feeling.
This is a little easier than thinking about giving them a high five, but if you have an enemy that has done something really bad in your life, willing yourself to wish for their goodwill may still feel impossible.
It feels impossible to go from hating someone with the core of our being for what they have done to embracing them in love and wishing their goodwill.
So let’s back up, and work our way up to it. Jesus doesn’t expect us to get there overnight. Going from hatred to love in one move is impossible. It’s a process. So let’s back up, and look at one small step we can take, today.
The first step to loving your enemies is to see them as human.
Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says this:
“Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.
You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.” (Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark)
The first step is to see your enemy not as a monster, or a super villain, or a force in your life, but a human.
The kind of human who even as you hate them Jesus died for. A human who shows you just how big God’s grace must be to encompass all we are capable of.
Because that’s where it starts with you and God. God sees you as human, with all of your good and with all of your deepest sin. This is the first step for you in loving your enemies.
But why take a step at all? Why even try to love our enemies?
Because this teaching of Jesus, about loving our enemies, while seemingly impossible is another piece to living our lives to the fullest.
When you see your enemies as humans, it takes away your fear of them.
They aren’t a super monster.
They are a broken human.
Loving your enemies, or at least moving in that direction, takes away their power too. You won’t let them set the course of your day, your week, your life.
You begin to feel free from the hatred that holds you captive. You’ll feel released from the hold of what they did to you so you can embrace the future God has for you.
You will look them in the eye and feel yourself grow stronger.
Your faith will increase as you feel God do powerful things in you, things you know you could never have done on your own. God will do things only God can do, like still the swirling of your spirit and finally give you peace.
Because it would be easy for us to think this all sounds great but is actually impossible, except for the occasional goat and tiger perhaps, I’d like to end with a story of what this looks like, in real life, with real people, and very real enemies.
Corrie ten Boom shared a story of a man, Thomas whom she met. Corrie herself knows quite a bit about radical love and forgiveness, having survived a Nazi camp, watched her sister die there, and then met her prison guard face to face after the war and asked God to help her forgive. She went on from there to share her story with others and to hear others stories too. That’s how she met Thomas. She tells his story like this:
“Thomas was a tall black man who lived in a round hut together with his big family in the middle of Africa. He loved the Lord and loved people – an unbeatable combination. Thomas’s neighbor, who lived across the dirt street, hated God – hated men like Thomas who loved God. The hatred grew stronger and stronger until the man began sneaking over at night and setting fire to the straw roof on Thomas’s hut, endangering his small children. Three nights in a row this happened and each time Thomas was able to rush out of his hut and put out the flames before they destroyed the roof and the walls. The fact that he never said an unkind word to his neighbor, made his neighbor hate him even more.
One night the neighbor sneaked across the street and set fire to Thomas’s roof. This night, however, a strong wind came up and as Thomas rushed to beat out the fire, the sparks blew across the street and set the neighbor’s house on fire. Thomas finished putting out the fire on his roof and then rushed across the street to put out the fire on his neighbor’s roof. He was able to extinguish the flames, but in the process he badly burned his hands and arms.
Other neighbor’s told the chief of the tribe what had happened. The chief was so furious that he sent his police to arrest the neighbor and throw him into prison.
That night Thomas came to the meeting where I was speaking (as he had done each night). I noticed his badly burned hands and asked him what had happened. Reluctantly he told me the story.
“It is good that this man is now in prison,” I said. “Now your children are no longer in danger and he cannot try again to put your house in flames.” “That is true,” he said. “But I am sorry for that man. He is an unusually gifted man and now he must live together with all those criminals in a horrible prison.” “Then let us pray for him,” I said.
Thomas dropped to his knees and holding up his burned and bandaged hands, he began to pray, “Lord, I claim this neighbor of mine for You. Lord, give him his freedom and do the miracle that in the future he and I will become a team to bring the Gospel in our tribe. Amen.”
Never had I heard such a prayer. Two days later I was able to go to the prison. I spoke to the prisoners about God’s joy and God’s love. Among the group who listened intently was Thomas’s neighbor. When I asked who would receive Jesus in his heart, that man was the first one to raise his hand.
After the meeting I told him how Thomas loved him, how he had burned his hands trying to put out the fire to save his house, and how he had prayed that they might become a team to spread the gospel. The man wept big tears and nodded his head saying, Yes, yes, that is how it shall be.”
The next day I told Thomas. He praised God and said, “You see, God has worked a miracle. We never can expect too much from Him.” He left, running off down the path, his face beaming with joy.”
Maybe we aren’t ready to love like Thomas when it comes to our enemies.
But maybe we can take one step, and try to see our enemies as God would – as a human, broken and sinful, and in need of God’s grace.
Just like you and me.
Let’s start there.
About the Author
Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan
More Things Jesus Taught about Loving Our Enemies
- Luke 6: 27-36
- Matthew 5: 38-48
- Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31
- John 15: 1-17
- John 21: 1-20
- Matt 20: 24-28, Mark 10: 41-45, Luke 22: 24-30, John 13: 4-5, 31-35