By Dr. Roger Barrier, Crosswalk.com
Jesus told us to love our enemies, but I’m having trouble with that. I have some people who are really hurting me. In fact, I think that I hate them. I know that Jesus said we shouldn’t hate people. But I’m struggling with this. How can I start loving my enemies?
In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus teaches about how to love our enemies. I’m going to walk through this passage verse by verse to help answer your question.
First, Christ-followers must live on a higher plane than the rest of the world.
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43).
When I read that verse, I’m on solid ground! It’s no trouble for me to love those who love me and pray for those who pray for me and let all the rest be hanged. But when I read Matthew 5:44, I must confess that I run into difficulty!
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44).
It’s easy to read “Love Yourself.” It’s hard to read, “Love Your Enemies.” It’s hard to pray for those who take advantage of us or hurt us. You know it, and I know it! So, why and how do we follow Jesus’s instructions?
Then, we come to one of the most searching questions in all of the Bible.
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the pagans do that? (Matthew 5:46-47).
Read that one more time, slowly and carefully. What do you do more than others? This question boomerangs right back to us. What’s the difference between the way that we treat others and the way that the world does? If we are followers of Christ, shouldn’t there be a difference between our behavior and our neighbor who doesn’t profess anything?
When we only love those who love us … if we only give to others who have already given to us … if we just “do unto others what they have done unto us” (which is NOT found in the Bible, by the way) … we’re following the world’s standards. That’s a low bar compared to Jesus’s command in Matthew 5:48,
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.
This shakes me all the way down to my spiritual toes. Perfection is the highest bar there could be … but in the power of Christ, we can do all things. He only asks us to do what we can do in His strength (see Philippians 4:13). And when we follow His command to love our enemies, no matter how impossible that may seem to you and me, Jesus will honor our efforts.
Next, enemies come in all shapes and sizes.
Our “enemies,” of course, do not always come in life-threatening forms. Often, they are ordinary people who are mean, impatient, judgmental, self-righteous, and spiteful—or just happen to disagree with us.
But in all of our relationships, God wants us to love. Whether a conflict is with our marriage partner, our children or parents, our friends and fellow church members, a devious business opponent, spiteful neighbor, political foe, or social antagonist – our attitude should be one of prayerful love.
We have problems loving our enemies because we don’t understand the meaning of love.
Most of the time, we don’t know how to give or receive love because we don’t know how to define it. We think it’s a warm feeling. You know “Love is a warm puppy!” Why, that’s even the name of a book! No wonder we have so much confusion about love!
What does love really mean?
In English, we have only one word for “love.” We love everything from chicken to football, to cars, to family, to God. Not so in the Greek language. Greek has four different words to express different types and degrees of love.
- “Storge” is not used in the New Testament. We can dismiss it.
- “Eros” is fleshly, sensual love. We get our English word “erotic” from “eros.”
- “Philos” is used 45 times in the New Testament. It is filled with deep emotion and often used to describe friends and family; like Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love.”
- “Agape” is used 320 times in the New Testament. It describes the divine love of God which loves the unlovely and never quits.
Agape is a sacrificial, giving love that demands nothing in return. It is unconditional and unwavering. Agape loves the unlovable. Agape looks at a person who repels everyone else and loves that person. Agape never quits. A couple marries and vows, “I love you,” and then they split up. We know that their love was not agape love because agape love never quits.
Love is not a warm emotion or a feeling. It is something that we CHOOSE to DO.
If love is built on feelings, then it’s built on shifting sands. It doesn’t just happen to us. It’s not an emotion. Love is a product of the will. We make the deliberate decision to love, and we choose that love no matter what happens. It’s a vow, a commitment, a constant.
Think about John 3:16, the most loving verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He felt romantic about it.” No! “That He got a tingling sensation up his spine.” No! No!
John 3:16 says, “For God so agaped the world, that He gave His only Son” … and never expected the world to pay Him back. Love is an act of self-sacrifice. There’s no such thing as agape without action!
Jesus demonstrated His love for the disciples by doing something. Agape love is known by its actions. Jesus loved His disciples, so He washed their feet.
Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love (John 13:1).
He loved them, and He took action. While they argued about who was the greatest and who would sit next to Jesus in the millennial kingdom, Jesus got up and washed their feet. Jesus continued,
A new command I give to you: love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)
“As I have loved you.” How had he loved them? He had just washed their feet. That’s exactly what Jesus asks of us!
If your enemy is hungry, feed him or her. We are to feed our enemy whether we feel like it or not. If your enemy is thirsty, give him or her a drink. We give whether we feel like it or not.
Let’s elaborate with a case history. Tom and Mary watched their marriage deteriorate over the past years. Finally, they decided that it’s all over. They went to a Christian counselor, not because they really wanted their marriage to be put back together, but because they were about to do something that the Bible says not to do: Get a divorce without biblical grounds.
So, they related the sordid details. The wife told all and concluded, “So you see, no love left, no hope left. Nothing left to build on.”
They were expecting the counselor to say, “Well, I agree. There’s nothing left to build on. I can’t guess you might as well call it quits.”
Instead, he said, “I guess that you’ll just have to learn how to love!”
So, the counselor said to Tom, “God says love your wife as Christ loved the church.”
Tom replied, “I couldn’t love her like that. No way. I don’t even like her.”
The counselor continued, “All right, let’s go to a lower level. The Bible commands us to love our neighbors. Since you sleep with her and live with her, she’s the closest neighbor that you have. Love your neighbor.”
Tom said again, “I can’t help it. I can’t love her like that.”
“Okay. Let’s go down a level. The Bible says, ‘Love your enemies.’ God didn’t tell you to like her. God said love her. Give to her. Sacrifice for her. Bless her. Pray for her. Make an investment in her life. You’ll find that loving feelings will one day begin to come.”
God says love your wife as Christ loved the church.
Here are some helpful guidelines to keep in mind when loving your enemies:
1. If we love our neighbors, we will have fewer enemies.
2. Loving enemies is not natural. The best way to have the right attitude, the agape love attitude toward those who persecute us, is to bring them before the Lord in prayer.
3. When we intentionally give good things to our enemies and do good things for our enemies, we will discover that their attitude towards us will most often change for the better.
4. When we only give nickels and dimes to others, our small investment makes it easy to simply quit the relationship.
5. Put aside your feelings and make a determined decision to do something good for your enemy. Then ACT.
6. Make a commitment to love the unlovely no matter how unlovely they are.
7. If necessary, find ways to let go of your bitterness and anger toward those who have hurt you. I’ve had several enemies who have hurt me over the years. One hurt me badly. Could you believe that in my darkest moments I felt like I hated him? So, I prayed and used other healing tools. I’m being very honest here. I used to play a lot of handball, and sometimes I painted his face on the ball. I’m thankful that the time between thoughts kept lengthening. We eventually restored our relationship and became friends.
8. When we love our enemies, we are most like Jesus.
There is a rabbinic tale that tells of the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. It says that when the Egyptians drowned, the angels rejoiced. But Jesus was weeping.
We are created to be perfect in our love as God is perfect in His love.
Again, Jesus taught, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The word perfect, “teleios” in Greek, is not easily translated from Greek to English. It needs at least a phrase or a sentence, so it’s often translated as “perfect, complete, or mature.”
I think that the best way to capture the meaning is to say that something is “teleios” when it does what it was created to do. For example, it doesn’t matter if an eraser is big or little, broken or intact, round or square, it is “teleios” if it erases.
In the same way, we are “teleios” when we do what we are created to do. What are we created to do? We are created to love God, ourselves, our neighbors, AND our enemies.
We are “perfect, mature, and complete” when we love.
Let me conclude with one of my favorite “teleios” stories.
A very busy executive in an eastern city was rushing to catch a plane. He has about given up trying to live a “personal, daily life with Christ,” because of the great demands on his time. Racing through the Kennedy airport, he promised himself that he would try to be a real Christian that day instead of only talking about it.
He was charging across the lobby with bags in hand when he heard the final call for his flight. He was almost to the gate when he bumped into a small boy holding a small suitcase. The boy was carrying a jigsaw puzzle, and the pieces went everywhere!
The executive paused, saw tears in the child’s eyes, and with an inward sigh, he stopped, smiled, and helped the boy pick up the pieces as the plane rolled away. The child watched him intently. When he finished picking up all of the pieces, the boy looked up with a kind of awe: “Mister,” he said hesitantly, “Are you Jesus?”
It doesn’t get any better than that.
Well, Aaron, I hope that I’ve shed some positive light on your question.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his 35-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Editor's Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger's daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian.
Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].