23 January 2023

Love for enemies: Are we in spiritual shape?

Major Tim Johnson

Major Tim Johnson considers how to react in the face of provocation.

Key text

One Friday morning at the drop-in at Bicester Corps, a client asked me why I had a pen and paper in my hand.

I explained that I was mulling over where to begin a Bible study that I needed to write. His response was: ‘The Bible is full of some really difficult to understand stuff.’ I replied: ‘Yes, but the bit I’m looking at isn’t difficult to understand – it’s difficult to do.’

Jesus’ command in verses 27 and 28 of our study passage is clear, direct and shocking: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you.’ It’s like having a cold glass of water unexpectedly thrown in your face – it takes you aback and makes you think, ‘What? Is that really necessary?’

If we look for biblical examples, we might think of Elisha’s response to the Aramean soldiers who were blinded by God’s power as they were preparing to attack his home. Elisha leads them to the city of Samaria. Then, in response to the king of Israel’s question as to whether he should kill them, the prophet asks the king to spare their lives and feed them well (see 2 Kings 6:18–23). This results in Aram and Israel living at peace.

In Proverbs 25:21 and 22, we read: ‘If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.’

In Jesus’ parable, it is the Samaritan, someone who would typically be viewed as an enemy of the Jewish people, who acts in love and care.

Pause and reflect

  • Who is your enemy?

If that word is too dramatic, who are the people you would be pleased not to have to deal with again?

Photo shows someone holding a paper heart

Luke 6:35

Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.

Read the passage in Luke

Is it a person in the next country or the person next door? Given the highly partisan nature of social media, it could be anybody who’s not in your echo chamber. He or she is certainly the last person we want to treat well.

Pause and reflect

  • How do we go about loving our enemies?

We can begin by following the instructions Jesus gives to his disciples, after commanding them to love their enemies.

Start with what we say: ‘Bless those who curse you.’

It doesn’t matter what evil or lies other people say about us – continue to speak love and truth about them, keep speaking of and remembering God’s love for them. Following Jesus is not a tit-for-tat, ping-pong game of untruths; it’s serving up God’s goodness against the odds no matter what they are.

Next, act right: ‘Do good to those who hate you.’ Doing the right thing will not be easy but Jesus challenges us to do it anyway. Choosing to love our enemies doesn’t automatically mean that everyone will love us. Some people who are sympathetic to us will not understand and turn away; those who are antagonistic will merely be hardened in their attitude.

Don’t forget: ‘Pray for those who ill-treat you.’ In a way that reflects his love of them and not your anger at being mistreated, we are to bring our enemy before God.

Pause and reflect

  • Consider how you have spoken and acted towards your enemies and how you might pray for them.

In verse 29 Jesus suggests reacting in a way an enemy would not expect: ‘If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.’ The attacker might well anticipate an equally violent response. Instead, by keeping their hands down and not going on the offensive, the victim not only opens themselves to further injury but also offers opportunity for a pause.

Rather than escalating the situation, such a reaction can pave the way for peace and reconciliation. Although it might be risky, it can be game-changing.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, teaches his disciples: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Matthew 5:9).

In verses 29 and 30 of our study passage, Jesus teaches his listeners that possessions are less important than love: ‘If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.’ At a time when, for many people, possessions are everything, this idea is ground-breaking.

Pause and reflect

  • Prayerfully consider which of these you find most difficult to deal with.
  • Ask God to direct you in ways that will help you reflect him more clearly.

In verses 32 to 35, Jesus’ teaching – to love, to do good and to give generously to our enemies – highlights how our behaviour should be different to that of our enemies.

How are we in better spiritual shape if we only do the things that those who do not know or follow God do? Mahatma Gandhi believed in non-violent protest. He once said: ‘It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.’

Above all, we are to reflect the nature of God. As God’s representatives, we are to show grace, reach out across the canyon of hurt and offence, make the way open for relationship and ‘be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’ (v36).

The apostle Paul says that we are to be more than conquerors through God’s love (see Romans 8:37). How do we become more than conquerors? By persuading the person who used to be our enemy that you mean them well, by making them your friend and by showing them God’s love and mercy.

Bible study by

Tim Johnson

Major Tim Johnson

Corps Officer, Oxford

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