The Ukrainian pastor could not believe what he saw. He had arrived at the situation innocently enough. A few days earlier, an elderly woman had come to his office seeking help to secure her dying son’s diabetic medication. Wanting to be the hands and feet of Jesus, the pastor secured the medicine and then brought it to the woman’s home. But when he walked into the back bedroom, he did not see just any man. He saw ‘the man,’ his former security guard. For ten years, this guard had wiped his feces on the pastor’s toast. To top off the torture, the guard had also blindfolded and then tied the pastor to the execution post. The guard demanded that the pastor recant. He refused. But instead of gun shots, curses rang out. The guard then untied the pastor, drug him across the prison floor, and tossed him out of the gate. That chapter of the pastor’s life had ended just a few months earlier. Now he stood over his abuser unrecognized and full opportunity. Here was his moment, his chance for payback, justice, and revenge. What should he do?
What would you do if you had the opportunity to get even with that one person who had destroyed your childhood, ruined your marriage, or trashed your reputation? What would you do if you had the opportunity to get even with your most hated enemy?
The Sunday school answer (of course) consists of us loving and forgiving those who hurt us. After all Jesus had told his listeners in Matthew 5:44, “But, I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Still, this is not so easy to do when applied to the real world. Jesus knew this. In Matthew 5:43, he describes the general religious approach to dealing with enemies when he states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Though modern ears get a touch squeamish around the word “hate,” they still very much tolerate the concept that characterized second temple religiosity. One does not have to go far before he or she will hear people qualifying their love for others with appeals to the concepts of negativity and toxicity. We love those who support our passions and who give credence to our hurts. On the other hand, we hate those who push unkind, toxic, and destructive vibes into our souls. We shun them because they are bad for us. They always bring us down with their criticisms and judgement. Like the people of Jesus’s day, we tend to love our friends and hate our enemies. Despite our disposition towards hating, Jesus still calls us to love our enemies. After all, God sends rain on the just and the unjust and defines love according to his extraordinary character.
What does Love Look Like?
Before we dive into why we should love our enemies, we need to grasp what this love looks like. Namely, it looks like prayer. When men and women insult us, hurt us, and harm us even though we are peaceable, we are to first rejoice for such persecution proves that we are suffering as Jesus suffered (Matt 5:10-12). But then we pray!
If we truly love someone, we should want them to know the peace and joy of Jesus. We should hope and pray that those who have tortured us with their hands and words become members of our churches. This is not to say that we sidestep the legal system when crimes have been committed. But even as our enemies wind their way through the court system, our prayer should be for their salvation. Augustine helpfully defined love’s perfection as the ability, “To love our enemies, and to love them to the end that they may be our brothers.”
At this point, some will object because of the magnitude of their opponents. They believe that this unchecked politician will destroy their very way of life. This pastor will ruin the church. Or this boss will ruin their career. Such concerns are often not unfounded. But it does not change the Jesus’s mandate to love and pray for one’s enemies. As the British Pastor, John Stott noted, Jesus prayed for the men as they drove the nails into his hands. He then writes, “If the cruel torture of the crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?” None can. For the Christian only one class of people exists: those whom we love and pray for.
Sun and Rain
Such prayer-filled love is not optional. As Matthew 5:45 makes clear, all the sons of God pray for their enemies because the sons reflect the character of their Father. He makes it rain on the just and the unjust (5:45). Though many religious people assume the presence of a new car, or their recent promotion reveals that God is pleased with them, they have no biblical basis for such thought. In his love, God cares for both the wicked and the righteous alike. The farmer who faithfully loves his wife and the farmer who has as many sexual partners as he does ears of corn can both plant, harvest, and sell corn with great success. God does not wipe sinners out the moment they sin. He patiently endures their evil (and our evil for that matter) allowing the sun afresh on both the righteous and the unrighteous. When Christians pop out an umbrella or marvels at the red sunset, they should remember their father’s caring disposition to them and to those who torment them. God loves his enemies. How can his sons and daughters do otherwise?
Moreover, the simple ability to love those who love us falls short of the essence of God’s supernatural love. Jesus points out in Matthew 5:46, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Jesus then restates the idea with Gentiles in verse 47 to help his listeners understand that even the most unreligious person will love those who love them back. Though we should love our friends, spouses, and those that share our interests. We must not boast in this love for it is common to all. Both the Christian husband wearing a tie to church and the lesbian husband wearing her black leather pants understand the importance of caring for their sick partner for both know that a happy wife equals a happy life. What sets the believer apart from the unbeliever is that the tie wearing guy should be just as ready to help his lesbian neighbor as he is his own wife. As the martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “No sacrifice which a lover would make for his beloved is too great for us to make for our enemy.” With this in mind, can we say that we truly love our enemies?
When Jesus saw us laying helplessly on the bed of life after having devoted all our energies to openly undermining, attacking, and insulting him and his loving glory, he loved us afresh. He went and died on the cross so that we might live. And then he ascended to the throne where he intercedes on our behalf. Salvation exists because God loved his enemies to the point where they became his sons and daughters. Should we not do the same?
What Did the Pastor Do?
The Ukrainian pastor knew the surpassing love of God. Instead of exacting vengeance so he could get some closure, he gave them man his medicine. And then when the mother asked, the pastor prayed for her son, he did. By God’s grace he loved his enemy.