Romans 12:9 says, “Love must be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” When I read that verse, I thought for a moment that I thought I was off the hook.
There were people I didn’t have to behave lovingly towards; situations where I could just walk away, frustrated, or express my feelings with an “Oh yeah? Well, sticks and stones, buddy! Sticks and stones,” adding that three-snap gesture my teenage daughter does so well, like a zig-zag across her chest. A wordless condemnation.
When I read Romans 12:9, I thought, for just a second, Oh good; no more pretending. If I don’t want to be loving towards certain people who are unkind to me, I don’t have to be. But that’s not what Paul is saying.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus.”
Who Is My Enemy?
I find myself wrestling with this question. Not because I disagree with Bonhoeffer, but the issue is complex. Romans 12 continues, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (v.14) and “repay no one evil for evil” (v.17). At the very end of Chapter 12, Paul is exhorting us to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v.21).
How do we love genuinely and still love our enemy? For if someone is an enemy to me, do I really love him? This seems impossible.
The Greek “echthros” for “hostile” is translated into “enemy,” which refers to active or passive hatred; opposition. Echthros can be mutual or one-sided; obvious or unspoken.
If I say I love someone towards whom I harbor hostility, I have not loved him. Jesus said “that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). It’s not okay to think angry thoughts if I don’t act on them.
They’re the same thing. If I lack mercy and patience, I’m not following Jesus. 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 says that love is kind and doesn’t insist on its own way; love isn’t “irritable or resentful.” How can I possibly say I love someone and yet hold him in such disregard?
The answer is that I cannot. A person can be opposed to me and continue to view me in this way, treating me as an enemy, but my heart has to change. And to this, I often mutter under my breath “that is so unfair.”
In which case, my enmity is redirected towards God, and that’s not okay. As John Piper said, “it is never, ever, ever, right to be angry with God.” But that’s a big subject for another day.
Whom Do I Love?
Who is my neighbor? Everyone. Those who want to call themselves a “disciple” are supposed to regard everyone with love. Jesus loved his enemies, including the Roman guards who were beating him and nailing him to a cross and dividing his clothes while he watched and suffered.
He asked the Father to forgive them saying “they don’t know what they do” (Luke 23:34). He loved Peter who rejected him three times. Even challenging the Pharisees’ hypocrisy was an act of love.
One phrase I’ve heard many times is “I don’t get mad; I just give people enough rope to hang themselves with.” Jesus’ didn’t do that; he called people out. He warned them.
He gave them the most important information about their sin and the way out of their sin; offered them a chance to repent and receive forgiveness.
Jesus loves us when we don’t speak up for our faith, when we lose our temper, and when we lie to avoid conflict or consequences.
There are convicted drug dealers, formerly abusive spouses, and murderers who will one day walk with Jesus in heaven because they realized they weren’t just enemies of people — they were enemies of God, but he loved them “with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). And now, by his Son’s blood, they are redeemed.
How Do I Love?
Love isn’t easy; it is the most costly treasure imaginable. We sprinkle “God is love,” and “love your enemy” into spiritual conversations as though they are light and easy. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). But these concepts are difficult.
We can’t do it. With all the love in my emotional bank account, every penny, I cannot love the way Jesus loves. I am unable, by giving all my money to the poor, to actively love the way Christ loves.
It is impossible, by smiling and gritting my teeth as someone abuses or rejects me, to do more than stop myself from reacting sinfully. It’s not in my power. He doesn’t expect us to do this by our own strength either.
Our transformation “from one degree of glory to another [is] from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Our authentic feelings are being refined to line up with those of our Savior.
A disciple is one who follows Jesus, and that means not just going to heaven with him but modeling our lives on his. In order to obey Christ in the area of “loving our enemies,” we must let go of pride.
I find this difficult, don’t you? It can be a simple matter of not wanting to say, “I’m sorry,” or of tasting the word “but” on the end of my tongue and launching into all the reasons why I’m really not sorry.
It might be a matter of choosing not to feel defensive when I’m attacked but allowing myself to hear any truth embedded in the lies, work on changes I need to make, and trust that God knows the truth. Jesus didn’t defend himself to the Pilate. Why should I feel entitled to act otherwise?
Loving My Enemy for Real
When I took karate lessons a few years ago, our teachers explained that we don’t learn martial arts as a way to become successful fighters or to channel anger — we are learning how to avoid a fight.
Yes, we learned some effective kicks and punches and some pretty devastating things to do with our elbows, but we also learned self-control and were encouraged to respect the other person. Our spiritual armor is not for starting fights or saying, “My dad’s bigger than your dad.”
As I grow more like Christ (which is an embarrassingly slow process), I won’t be pressing down enmity. A humble love for my enemy will become natural and authentic. The goal is to see everyone the way Jesus sees them — with mercy and love.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.