How To Really Love Your Enemies
by Eric Elder
You can listen to today’s message by clicking this link! (18-1/2 minutes)
I want to talk today about how to really love your enemies. Not just live with your enemies, which is often what we try to do, wondering, “How can we just get through this day?” or “How can we deal with the people who are attacking us, accusing us, maligning us or fighting against us?” How do you not just live with your enemies, but how to you love them–really love them?
To start, let’s look at what Jesus says in His Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“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 sons 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 brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:38-48).
Talk about setting the bar high! Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect! Love those who are coming against you and attacking you! Give them your cloak if they ask for your tunic! Go with them two miles if they ask you to go one mile!
It really sounds like all you’re doing is letting people take advantage of you. It sounds like this would be the worst strategy in the world. Why would Jesus advocate this?
And yet Jesus explains that God causes the sun to rise on the evil as well as the good. He lets the rain fall on the righteous as well as the unrighteous. If God in heaven somehow is able to continually bless people, giving them breath, life, food, water and resources to people–regardless of whether those people are mean-spirited or vindictive or malicious or loving or kind or good–if God is somehow able to do that, and still be God and still do all that’s right, and still execute justice, and still do everything that God does, then Jesus says be like God and do the same. Be gracious to everyone, not just those who love you, but also to those who are against you.
These are hard words to hear sometimes because you may be in a place where there are a lot of people doing vindictive things to you, whether it’s in a relationship with your spouse or at work or a friend. Maybe some truly terrible things may have happened to you and you’re trying to establish new, healthy boundaries. So when you hear words like this, you might think, “I already tried that,” or “I simply can’t do that.” Sometimes words like these can be really hard. But let me dive into this idea of turning the other cheek a little more and hopefully give you an idea of things you can try to help you in your relationships with others.
I had a friend come to me who was married and having a really difficult relationship with her husband. They were getting verbally abusive with each other, even fist-fighting it out and cat-clawing one another– pretty nasty things. It was really hard to watch them go through this.
Yet as I watched them, I could see that she was oftentimes responding to her husband as if he was her previous, ex-husband. She looked like she was responding to something that had happened to her previous marriage, but taking it out on her current husband. She came to me and she asked–pleaded–“What should I do?”
I really hesitated to give her an answer. It took me several days to get back to her because I didn’t want to tell her the wrong thing. But from what I saw, she just kept resisting him at every turn. No matter what he wanted to do, she would resist him, resist him, and resist him. I read this passage over and over and finally showed it to her, saying, “I’m not sure, but what you’re doing doesn’t seem like it’s working very well. Maybe–just maybe–try this. If your husband knows that you’re not going to resist him at every turn, he might just lower his offense, and you could lower your defense, and maybe you guys could work it out.”
I said this with a lot of trepidation, because I didn’t want her to be in a terrible, abusive situation. There are certainly times when Jesus said to take up your sword (see Luke 22:36). Jesus also said many challenging things back to those who accused Him (see Matthew 12:34). There were times people wanted to stone Him and He would slip away through the crowd so they couldn’t stone Him or throw Him off a cliff (see John 8:59 and Luke 4:29).
So there may be times when you need to walk away, you need to slip away, and you need to verbally challenge people. But in this passage, Jesus is saying there’s a power–there’s a strength–that can come from dropping your defenses.
In karate there’s a move when someone comes at you with a punch, rather than fight it, you accept it. And as you accept their punch, you grab their arm, taking all of that energy that’s coming against you, and throw them to the floor with it. It’s a different way of resisting someone. Rather than standing there and using all your energy to try to block their punch, you say, “Bring it on!” because you have another approach that may work even better. In fact, Muhammad Ali, when he would fight with other people in the boxing ring, he would sometimes taunt his opponent at the beginning of the fight saying, “Come on, give me more! Hit me harder. You can do better than that! Punch me!”
And people would as him, “What are you doing?”
Muhammad Ali would say, “I’m winning. I’m wearing them out.” The other guy would just keep swinging and swinging and soon become exhausted. Muhammad Ali’s just had to wait it out until his turn came, then he would come back and deliver the final blow. Of course, that’s not what we’re tying to do when we’re trying to really love our enemies! But I’m saying there’s are principles even in the natural world, where people say, “OK, give it to me! In fact, give me a double dose! Bring it on!” and that strategy works. In our case, as Christians, we have God as our defender. We have Jesus, who can take someone’s swinging arm and use their own force to throw them to the ground, still loving on them as He picks them back up.
Sometimes people may think, “Christians are so weak because they just let people rail on them, mistreat them and abuse them.” And that could be. There could be some Christians who do that. But I know for me, when people have come against me, it has taken me more strength to stand in silence and let others do what they want to do, or to say whatever they want to say, than it would to actually come back and fight against them.
It is not a sign of weakness when you turn the other cheek.
I was watching a movie this week called Captain America: Winter Soldier. Maybe you saw it. There’s a scene in the movie where the president of the country is calling on Nick Fury, the head of the Avengers, to press a button and launch a missile system to attack their enemies. The president taunts Nick, implying that Nick is a coward if he doesn’t launch the missile system.
This president says, “It’s the next step, Nick, if you have the courage to take it.”
Nick replies: “No, I have the courage not to.”
Sometimes Christians don’t fight back, not because they lack the courage to do it, but because they have the courage not to. Sometimes it takes a lot more strength to not fight back.
Someone came against me one day with a barrage of attacks and accusations. What they were saying wasn’t right. Even though some of the facts were true, the way they interpreted those facts was completely wrong. Yet after trying to defend myself after the first few attacks, I realized this wasn’t the time for defense. This was the time to listen. This was the time to let the other person vent and get everything off their chest as to how they felt they had been wronged.
Rather than fight back, I took out a pen and paper and asked them to slow down. I said I really wanted to hear what they were had to say. I really wanted to listen to make sure I understood their heart. Rather than fighting back, I simply wrote down everything they said, point by point.
The more the other person talked, the more intense and painful their words became to me. Their words were like blows to my head, like punches to my gut. But I knew any defense I tried to make would fall on deaf ears, and it would only serve to intensify their attack.
When they were done with all they had to say, I was able to say, “Thank you for telling me.” They were spent, they were done talking, they had been heard and they were thankful for it, too.
I took that list and prayed over each item, trying to understand what God said about them and why this other person felt the way they did. And I was able to see it from their point of view. Even though I still disagreed, from my perspective, I could understand what they were saying. I later asked them if we could talk through some of these things with someone else in the room, maybe a counselor or a friend or anyone with whom they felt comfortable. They said that was OK, and so we did. I can’t say we resolved everything on that list yet, or even most of the things. But I can say we were able to walk forward with our relationship in a much more civil way, without the heat of the moment getting in the way.
I wish I could say this has always been my response. It hasn’t been, and it still isn’t every time. My “self” is fully alive and kicking within me. Maybe your “self” is still alive within you, too. But to the extent that I am willing to lay down my life for others, even for those who are attacking me, I am being Christlike and I can trust that He will be my defender, my protecter, my lawyer, my advocate and my judge.
And I would be foolish to think that I was always right in every argument.
Benjamin Franklin, as noted in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes from Franklin’s autobiography saying that in Ben’s younger days, Ben would always insist that he was right–and most of the time he was. But someone finally came up to Ben and said:
“Ben, you are impossible. Your opinions have a slap in them for everyone who differs with you. They have become so offensive that nobody cares for them. Your friends find they enjoy themselves better when you are not around. You know so much that no man can tell you anything. Indeed, no man is going to try, for the effort would lead only to discomfort and hard work. So you are not likely ever to know any more than you do now, which is very little.”
So Benjamin Franklin went on and he changed his approach. He decided, from that point on, he was not going to say, “This is certainly true,” or “This is absolutely right.” He always allowed that he could be wrong. He went on to say in his autobiography that this changed his conversations–it changed their tone and then tenor. Ben said he was able to win over many more people to his position by saying, “I could be wrong in this,” or “I believe this, but it might not be right.”
Using this approach, Ben found out that when he was wrong it was much easier to admit it, and when the other person was wrong, it was much easier for them to accept it. Ben Franklin went on to work out many deals with many people and put in place many treaties with many countries, all of which helped us and our country in many ways.
Abraham Lincoln, during the heat of the many battles of the Civil War, at one point was suggesting the north should show grace and mercy to the south, giving them various kinds of aid. People said to him that he shouldn’t be doing that for his enemies, that he should destroy them. Lincoln replied:
“Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?”
The best way to destroy your enemies is to make them your friends.
This can take time, though. President Lincoln also said in a letter:
“I am a patient man–always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance; and also to give ample time for repentance.”
Sometimes we need to let things chill for an ample length of time.
As I was thinking about this topic today, I thought of five close friends of mine right now, friends with whom, at five separate times in my life, had been at absolute loggerheads with me. I didn’t even understand what had happened in our relationship, yet they were extremely angry with me. When I tried to have a dialogue with each of them them, we weren’t able to make any progress.
At some point I had to walk away from each of them and say, “I feel like this is where I need to go. If you want to come along with me, that’s fine. If you don’t, I can’t force you to do that.” For several of them it took years, but they eventually came back to me, sometimes saying: “I’m so sorry, Eric. I was wrong. Will you forgive me.”
Each of these people, these five that I’m thinking about, have become some of my strongest supporters, some of my fiercest allies. They are people that will fight for me and my family, people that will come and help me in practical ways.
And yet with each of them, they were so against me that I thought at the time, “This is irreconcilable. This will never work out.” I could have kept trying to fight against them. I could have kept trying to argue. But instead I said, “I’ve got to step away. I’ve got to let God work on my heart and on theirs.”
I want to encourage you in this, too. You might say, “I’ve really got to fight against this,” “I’ve really got to take this person to court,” “I’ve really got to continue on with this lawsuit,” or whatever it is that you may be going through.
I want you to know, I’m not a pacifist. I think there are times to defend your position. Jesus did. There were times when Jesus challenged those who challenged Him. He rebuked those who rebuked Him. But there are also times to submit, to surrender, and to turn the other cheek–as Jesus did on the night He was betrayed, taken away, accused, beaten and crucified, the night that He showed His ultimate love for each one of us, even though some of us were still treating Him as an enemy.
Let me ask you this: if you’re resisting your enemies with everything you’ve got, fighting them on every front, how’s that working for you? Is it perhaps time to try another way? Is there a chance that these words of Jesus, highlighted in red letters in the Bible, could unlock a potential friendship that could help you significantly as the years go on?
I’d like to close with two verses. The first is from James 1:19:
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
Take your time. Don’t let the heat of the moment get to you. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
The other verse is from Proverbs 15:1:
” A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Is there someone to whom you could give a gentle answer today, instead of a harsh word?
Turn the other cheek. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Father, I know these can be such hard words to hear, and much harder words to apply. But God, we want to truly love our enemies, not just live with them. God, I pray You would give each one of us an extra dose of Your Holy Spirit today to empower us, to strengthen us, to give us the courage to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, and to give double of what others ask from us. Lord, I pray Your Holy Spirit would empower us to do this. Let these words be sealed in our hearts, and these red letters be emblazoned on our chests. Help us to love others as You love them. In Jesus’ name, Amen.