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How do we love our enemies?

A view of the statue "Christ the Redeemer" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Scripture is Matthew 5:44. Photo by Jose Guertzenstein, courtesy of Pixabay; graphic by Laurens Glass, United Methodist Communications.
A view of the statue "Christ the Redeemer" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Scripture is Matthew 5:44. Photo by Jose Guertzenstein, courtesy of Pixabay; graphic by Laurens Glass, United Methodist Communications.

Many Christians struggle with this question. As followers of Christ, we are called to love our enemies. We are to care for, pray for, provide for and hope the best for everyone, and not wish ill upon anyone, including our enemies.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs us how to treat our enemies: Love them as God loves them.

Who is my enemy?

The term "enemy" in English comes from the word "inimicus" in Latin, a word whose roots (in + amicus) mean "not a friend." All of us have people with whom we realize, for all kinds of different reasons, we will not become or remain friends. We may not share enough common values, or the values we hold most tightly put us in conflict with each other, a conflict neither of us see a way to resolve. 

Though we may not be able to be friends, our enemies are also beloved creatures of God. When we love our enemies, rather than hate them, we see them and behave toward them as God does. They may remain our enemies and may never be our friends. But they are loved as Christ loves us and gave himself for us, friend and enemy alike. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

John Wesley wrote several sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. In Sermon 23, he described Jesus’ call to love our enemies:

Love your enemies. See that you bear a tender good-will to those who are most bitter of spirit against you; who wish you all manner of evil.

Bless them that curse you. Are there any whose bitterness of spirit breaks forth in bitter words? Who are continually cursing and reproaching you when you are present, and "saying all evil against you" when absent? So much the rather do you bless: In conversing with them use all mildness and softness of language. Reprove them, by repeating a better lesson before them; by showing them how they ought to have spoken. And, in speaking of them, say all the good you can, without violating the rules of truth and justice.

Do good to them that hate you. Let your actions show, that you are as real in love as they in hatred. Return good for evil. ‘Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.’

If you can do nothing more, at least ‘pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.’ You can never be disabled from doing this; nor can all their malice or violence hinder you.

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This radical love, agape love, is hard! It requires action, not just a general sense of goodwill or affection. How can you do it? You might try starting with this blessing exercise, including a blessing of enemies. And you might begin cultivating habits of hospitality that intentionally seek to include enemies, not just friends and associates, where you can do so safely. 

In our increasingly polarizing world, loving enemies is also increasingly condemned by many. So in every step we take on this journey of love, we must especially rely on the grace, mercy, wisdom, and love of God. When we do, we know we always find them reliable! 

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