Understanding the Biblical Concept of 'Love Your Enemies'

Loving our enemies is a foreign concept. Love and enemies are words that seem mutually exclusive. Putting the two together raises questions. When the Bible tells us to love our enemies what does that mean? Who said it? Why? How?
Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Updated Oct 19, 2023
Understanding the Biblical Concept of 'Love Your Enemies'

The phrase "love your enemies" is a well-known teaching of Jesus found in the New Testament of the Bible. It is specifically found in the Gospel of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:44 (NIV), where Jesus says:

"But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

'Love Your Enemies' Meaning

This teaching is one of the central ethical principles in Christian theology and has profound implications for how Christians are called to live and relate to others. Here's what "love your enemies" means in a biblical context:

  1. Unconditional Love: Loving your enemies means showing love and kindness to those who oppose, mistreat, or harm you. It's a call to love without conditions, irrespective of how they treat you personally. (This unconditional love does not equate to pacifism, as Christians are still expected to defend the innocent and speak the truth without hate.)

  2. Act of Will: It's not merely an emotional feeling but an act of the will. Treating your enemies with compassion, forgiveness, and empathy involves a deliberate choice.

  3. Prayer: Besides loving your enemies, Jesus encourages his followers to pray for them. This means seeking God's blessings and well-being for those who may wish harm upon you. It's a way of acknowledging that God's grace extends to all, including those who oppose you.

  4. Imitating God: Jesus teaches that loving one's enemies reflects the character of God. God's love is often described as unconditional and all-encompassing, extending even to those who have sinned against Him. Christians are called to imitate this divine love.

  5. Overcoming Evil: Loving your enemies is a powerful way to overcome evil with good. By responding to hostility or hatred with love and forgiveness, Christians aim to break the cycle of revenge and promote reconciliation and peace.

  6. Christian Witness: When Christians love their enemies, it can be a powerful testimony to their faith. It demonstrates the transformative power of Christ's teachings and the ability of His followers to respond to challenging situations with grace.

It's important to note that Jesus' command to "love your enemies" challenges conventional wisdom and is often seen as a counter-cultural and demanding ethical standard. It goes beyond natural inclinations and human tendencies for retaliation and is a fundamental principle of Christian ethics. The goal is to promote forgiveness, reconciliation, and extending God's love to all, regardless of their actions or attitudes.

'Love Your Enemies' Bible References

In Proverbs 24:17, we’re told not to gloat when our enemy falls. In Proverbs 25:21, we’re told to feed our enemy when he’s hungry. But the direct instruction to love our enemies came from Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 5, Christ says:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies…

In Luke 6:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies…

God, who is love, has told us to love... including our enemy.

How To 'Love Our Enemies'

"How" is of the utmost importance. We aren’t able to love our enemies without the help of God. Hating an enemy is what comes naturally. We need supernatural help. If we try to love our enemies apart from the help of God, it will not be true love.

Only by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us can we love our enemies.

We can only love our enemies by trusting God to help us.

Why Should We Love Enemies?

There are two reasons for us to love our enemies. One is simply because God said to, but the other is because God loved us first.

When we were still God’s enemies (Colossians 1:21 and Romans 5:10), He demonstrated His love for us. Through Jesus (Romans 5:8), God’s love brought salvation to us. 

Love is what makes all the difference.

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to propitiate our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. 1 John 4:10-11

Loving others, even enemies flows out of knowing love.

What Does it Mean to Love Our Enemies?

In the two portions of scripture where Jesus elaborates on what He means by loving our enemies, He draws it to a conclusion.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 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 own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48 NIV

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. 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. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:27-36 NIV

The conclusion Jesus brings it to is for us to be like our Heavenly Father, Who is perfect and merciful. The word perfect can make us cringe due to our humanity. Only God is perfect. But the word perfect in the original Greek means complete. It comes from a primary word meaning to set out for a definite point or goal. Jesus is saying for us to make it our goal to love as our Heavenly Father loves.

Jesus brought up the issue of mercy repeatedly. Everyone wants mercy. The Bible tells us that mercy triumphs over judgment. Of course, we want it. Giving mercy requires us to give up revenge and hand the judgment part to God. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean allowing them to continue to hurt us. That would be a failure to love ourselves as God loves us. We can do what is in our control to protect ourselves while trusting God to step in.

We can always pray for our enemies. Praying is an act of mercy. Praying is loving like our Heavenly Father. Praying changes our hearts.

I remember when the Lord directed me to speak a blessing over an enemy who brought harm to a family member. With tears streaming down my face and pain in my soul, I did. The person continued acting as an enemy, but it broke the chain off my heart. The love of God saved me from bitterness and unforgiveness.

Loving our enemies means seeing them as human beings needing the Father’s love.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Suze777

Danielle Bernock is an international, award-winning author, coach, and speaker who helps people embrace their value and heal their souls through the power of the love of God. She’s written Emerging With Wings, A Bird Named Payn, Love’s Manifesto, Because You Matter, and Compassion Was Born. A long-time follower of Christ, Danielle lives with her husband in Michigan near her adult children and grandchildren. For more information or to connect with Danielle https://www.daniellebernock.com/


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