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How Does Loving One’s Enemies Work, Really?

April 16, 2020


A friend of mine and I were comparing notes on how challenged we feel, sometimes, to offer real forgiveness to friends and family, and on the question of enemies.

“Jesus said we are to forgive without limit,” my friend said, “but does that mean we’re supposed to keep putting ourselves out there to be victimized by people who really know how to hurt us and seem to enjoy doing it?”

It’s a conundrum, isn’t it? We are supposed to love everyone, forgive “unto seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22), and we know that forgiveness is essential to our spiritual health, even if—in some cases—some people just feel like they prefer the tormentor’s role in our personal narratives. “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you,” writes the theologian Lewis Smedes, and he’s completely right.

Loving everyone is downright difficult and none of us can do it perfectly except the Lord and those saints he has so graced. My friend and I acknowledged it, but she couldn’t let it go, and wondered, “Doesn’t that mean the person we’re avoiding is our enemy? Aren’t we not supposed to have enemies?”

Her question reminded me of a what a Benedictine nun says to a novice in Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede“We may quarrel, we may find ourselves going down another staircase to avoid meeting some particular nun, but in times of stress . . . [we are all there for one another.]”

That, it seems to me, is the essence of how we are to handle difficult relationships. It speaks of a charity that does not put people too frequently in each other’s way (and tempt them into a needless, unhappy exchanges), yet is still helpful, when help is really needed, and without resentment or a desire for recognition. It puts enmity to the side for the sake of the greater good.

When I was a little girl, I used to take some comfort from Jesus’ command to “love your enemies”; the fact that he used the word “enemies” seemed like a clear acknowledgment that they exist and are a normal part of life. It almost seemed like Jesus was giving us tacit permission to have enemies, to make a place for enemies within our lives, as though they could be compartmentalized and shoved into an unused storage portion of our soul. When someone explained that “loving one’s enemies” meant little more than “not wishing them ill,” I felt like I had figured it all out: I could have my enemies, and as long as I didn’t actually wish evil on them, I was set for heaven.

That was how I rolled for about twenty years, until I actually heard someone use the word “enemy” when speaking about another. I had asked a woman in the office why she was so aggravated with a fellow we worked with. “I’ll tell you why,” she steamed at me, “because that man is my enemy. If he were dying in the street, I would walk right by him.”

Coming from the mouth of a woman I generally found to be pleasant and generous in nature, these were some of the most chilling words I had ever heard; they literally gave me goosebumps. I asked what the man could possibly have done to have earned such a vehement condemnation, and she said, with a terrible expression, “He complained about one of my kids not being friendly on the phone.”

It was one of those uncomfortable light-bulb moments, when one realizes that complacent ideas from our youth can no longer work and demand reassessment. I had turned the notion of enemies into the equivalent of a benign spot on a spiritual X-ray: nothing to worry about, no threat to the soul.

That was incorrect. The evidence before my eyes, demonstrated in the dark, tense expression of my coworker and her brutish tone, hit me like a swift punch to the solar plexus; with breathtaking clarity I understood that to entertain the concept of “having an enemy” was to give it room to grow. No benign practice, this was instead a path to spiritual malignancy—a true cancer that could kill the soul.

Jesus did indeed recognize that there are such things as enemies—and we are not meant to wander through our lives reckless and unaware of what or who can threaten us or do us harm. Certainly, we should not turn a blind eye to evil, which is the true enemy.

But Jesus’ command to love those we perceive to be our enemies is actually a tool for discernment, and for our own salvation. To love our enemies means a great deal more than to simply not wish evil upon them; it means making a conscious effort to find a path to our own mercy, for their sake and our own. That path is found, Jesus tells us, through prayer: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).

My workplace friend had made an enemy of a man who presumed to criticize her child. That might seem a trivial thing, but we do not know the whole of anyone else’s story. Perhaps her child was mildly autistic and his weak phone manners were actually part of a long process of victories and setbacks that had left her with no tolerance for picky critiques. Perhaps the man—her enemy—had been bullied by a parent into caring overmuch about social niceties and was knee-jerk and unthinking in his complaint.

The woman’s real enemy, though, was the creation of her seething resentment, which was wounding her, not him. To pray for the man’s good would ultimately have helped her to discern thoughtlessness from real evil, and brought a measure of peace.

We all wrestle with what forgiveness demands of us. We may forgive someone with an authentic intention of mercy, truly meaning our words, and yet also pointedly desire to distance ourselves from them as much as possible in order to protect that forgiveness from predictable future assaults that might strain charity. Some relationships are simply toxic beyond sense or permission, and in those circumstances—especially if we know we have made numerous good-faith attempts to reach out and really seek peace—we can take Jesus’ advice to “shake the dust off” our feet” (Matt. 10:14) and move on, just as he told his Apostles to do when made unwelcome.

This is one way, at least for a moment, a day, or a year, to maintain our sense of forgiveness and our desire to promote peace—in the world and in our lives—without feeling oppressed by a sense that we have not done enough. New opportunities to hone our forgiveness skills will always come.