The six statements from Matthew 5: 21-48 are progressive. Each one depends on mastering the one before it. We can’t love our enemies without mastering anger, controlling lust, accepting the permanency of human relationships, behaving honestly and giving up the right of revenge. But none of this is possible unless we first surrender our hearts to God. Without His transforming power we can never achieve any of this.
Jesus is not demanding, but describing the kind of life that exists in the Kingdom of God. This is not a new set of regulations, but a picture of what we will do when Christ transforms our lives. Christians should not make any claims of being fully perfect or obedient. We are all works in progress. But this is how we act if we want to be like Him. An actor studies a role by looking at the person he is supposed to be. A Christian studies Christ and imitates Him. Without these statements, we can easily miss what Jesus considered to be morally important.
The last and hardest statement is to love our enemies. In Matthew 5: 43-48, Jesus begins by telling us what we already know—that we should love friends and hate enemies. Well, duh! We don’t have to be told this--we already do. Loving friends is a no-brainer. As far as hating enemies--that’s what enemies are for! Hating our enemies is the most natural thing in the world. In fact, an enemy means someone we hate, or hates us!
But what is “hate”? Hate is any negative emotional or physical action to someone. We may feel hate, or we might not feel anything at all to them--they could just be in our way. We may feel negatively towards someone, but not anger—it could be fear or disgust or just a general dislike. We might act on that hatred, or we may just keep it inside. But it is hatred, whether we speak or act, or don’t act.
Hatred is like a rat in the basement. We may not want it there, we may even deny it’s there, but it’s there, and won’t go away unless we deal with it.
There are people who say, “I never hated anyone,” but I don’t believe it. Is there no one you would rather not be around? Is there no one you avoid? Is there no one that you are afraid of? The only way we can truthfully say we hate no one is by devaluing what hatred is. Enemies aren’t just someone we yell or shoot at, but someone we don’t want to be around.
We Christians are no better than non-Christians when it comes to hatred. We may express it differently, but we are still haters. Christians are often not yellers, but avoiders. How can we love our enemies without actually rubbing shoulders with our enemies?
Among the first places we avoid our enemies is in the church. God’s church doesn’t contain perfect people. If you’ve been in a church for long, you know that there are people in it that will make you furious.
In America, we stress the voluntary nature of church membership and attendance. If there are people in the church who irritate us, or if the practice of the church doesn’t suit us, we just go somewhere else. Then we don’t have to put up with “ungodly” people at the church.
Leaving is one way of dealing with disagreement, but it is not one that Jesus would endorse. Even when the temple leaders were trying to kill Him, he kept going to the temple. When we leave part of the Body of Christ over disagreements, we do just what Jesus says—we love our friends and by leaving hate our enemies. We fulfil the Old Testament, but not the Kingdom of God.
God has placed us in families, communities and churches, to be a witness, not just a participant. He didn’t call us to just bless those who bless us. Our enemies are sent to us to help us become Christlike. How can we imitate Jesus, who sat down to eat with Pharisees and scribes trying to kill him by avoiding our brother who just gets on our nerves?
I realize this is hard--that’s why we can’t do it without having already made some progress in mastering the other five things that Jesus said. Fortunately, God doesn’t judge us according to our ability to keep, but recognizes the difficulty in keeping it. Loving our enemies should only be attempted by those who want to be conformed to Christ’s image.
But unless we love our enemies, we can never be like Jesus. The last line of Matthew 5 gives us the reason why. He says, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Perfection doesn’t mean being sinless—that would be impossible. It is a perfection of intention, not a perfection of action that we seek first. If our intention is pure, we will work out ways of following through in action. If Jesus loved His enemies, then we should be working to loving our enemies, too.
So, how do we do it? First of all, let’s get something straight—loving our enemies doesn’t mean liking our enemies. Nor does it mean that our enemies will like us. They are still our enemies. We can’t change our emotions by simply wishing them away, or pretending that they don’t exist. We must readily acknowledge that there are some people who just irritate us. We can’t wish that irritation away. The more we try to pretend we do like them, the less we will like them. But we can still love people we don’t like. We do this by our actions, not our thoughts.
Here is what Jesus recommends we do if we want to learn to love our enemies. First, we pray for them. This doesn’t just pray for them once, but habitually pray for them. Make it part of our regular devotional life to pray for the people who irritate or oppose you.
Now there’s a right and a wrong way to pray for our enemies. Mostly, we do it the wrong way.
The wrong way is to praying judgmentally. That would be praying for our enemies to either drop dead or to change their ways.
You don’t need to know the condition of your enemy’s heart--that’s God’s business. It’s wrong for us to judge our neighbor, even in prayer. Besides, it doesn’t help us while praying to remind ourselves of our enemy’s faults. There are times when it’s appropriate to pray for our enemies to change their hearts, and even sometimes that our enemies be removed. But these are not praying for our enemies. They are prayers for ourselves. Their intention is not to make our enemies happy, but to make us happy.
Praying for our enemies means for them-- for their health, happiness and prosperity. If you enemy is satisfied, he will have less will to fight about. Think of the things that he needs to be happy in life, and ask God to shower them upon him. Pray for his dreams to be fulfilled. Pray for him to know Jesus and that he enters the Kingdom of God. Let God decide, though what needs to be changed in his life. You aren’t called to judge, just pray.
Praying for our enemies the right way has a powerful effect on your life. It’s hard to wish a person ill if you are scouring your brain in prayer to think of ways they could be blessed. If you are wishing them well before God, God will change your heart, so that you no longer regard them as an enemy. When God blesses your enemy, you are blessed, too, because your prayers were part of it.
In other Scriptures, Jesus tells us other things to do to love our enemies. In Luke 6:47, He says “bless those who curse your, and to do good to those who hate you.” In addition to praying, find something good to do for him. Look for little things to show your support for your enemy, in spite of your disagreements. Everyone has personal needs, and we can help meet some of the needs even of people we dislike.
The world has an order of how the process of reconciliation should go. (1) Our enemy is persuaded we are right, and sees things our way. (2) Recognizing that they were wrong, they apologize to us. (3) We begin to feel better about them. (4) They behave in a friendly manner towards us and start doing good things for us. Finally, (5) we start to pray for them, bless them and by doing good things for them.
Of course, this rarely, if ever happens. When was the last time someone said to you, “I was wrong. You were right”? No wonder we have so many permanent divisions between people—we are waiting for apologies that never come!
Instead, Jesus proposes another order—start at the end.
1. Do good things for them and pray for them.
2. They start to feel better about us.
3. We start to feel better about them.
4. We mutually apologize
5. We may agree—or at least agree to disagree. We don’t have to get our issues resolved for us to recognize the basic humanity and unity we have in Christ.
Third, we practice impartiality to our enemies. God doesn’t play favorites. When He sends rain, it falls on everyone. When the sun shines, it doesn’t just shine on good people. God gives life and joy to all. It isn’t our place to judge the worthiness of people before we let loose our blessings. We are seeking to be like God.
In Africa, I taught in a Christian village that was being harassed by a witch doctor. The witch doctor had planted a grove of cashew trees on church property without permission. The church wanted to build a medical clinic on that same property. They hired a man to come out and cut down the trees. When the trees started falling, about thirty men with spears and machetes showed up shouting and cursing the Christians. The Christians did not fight back, but prayed for them overnight. While the crowd was still complaining, the Christian women showed up with box lunches for all the men who were threatening them with machetes. That really took the wind out of their demonstration!
But there is a deeper principle behind the command to love our enemies. It is the principle of mediated relationships. All our relationships must be seen first as a duty we owe to Christ. I don’t just love you—I love you in Christ. Christ is my first love, not you. If you don’t love me back, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I have been called to express a love to you that is not first of all my own, but His. As God is impartial, so I must also be impartial.
God has sent enemies into our lives for a purpose. It is not so we can destroy them, but so that we ourselves can be restored. By loving them, we discover what it is like to be Jesus. We are not Jesus—not yet—but we can learn to be more like him, when we pray for our enemies and bless them. One by one, we can win over our enemies, by loving them into the Kingdom.