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How to Love Your Enemies

(What follows is a talk I gave at the Church of St John & St Philip in The Hague on 27 May 2007.) Prayer–for eyes that see, ears that hear and hearts that understand.

I remember Michael beginning a sermon on loving our enemies with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. It was after the American Civil War and the president’s advisors and generals were urging him to punish the South severely for all the bloodshed it had caused. Lincoln replied, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

In this photo, President Carter joins hands with President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel after signing the Camp David Accords in 1979. It marked the end of the 31-year state of war between their countries. A war for which no one thought there was any hope for peace.

Is such a thing possible? I’m not talking in generalities. Loving our enemies sounds fine, until we actually have enemies, real people making our daily lives miserable.

Some of us may say, I don’t have any enemies. But I wonder if that could be true. I think we all have enemies. Even Jesus had enemies. Maybe we just don’t know it.

If we are commanded to love our enemies, then we need to know who our enemies are. So I’m going to conduct an Enemy-Identification Survey. There are two rules: Be honest, and be quiet. The answers are for you alone, but I hope some more enemies will be revealed in our lives; because only when we know who exactly our enemies are, can we begin to hope to want to love them. So start making your mental list.

Enemies are the ones who have wronged us. Personal enemies are rarely strangers. A personal enemy is often someone who has betrayed us. And a stranger cannot betray. Only a friend can. So be thinking of the friends who betrayed you, betrayed your trust, your love. These enemies come from the ranks of partners, in business and in love. Sometimes our enemies are the people closest to us. We opened up and trusted, we expected love, we ached for attention, we longed for someone to listen to us, to help, to rescue, to comfort—and that person wasn’t there for us. In fact, they made it even worse, and now we shut them out. An enemy. Who are the people you complain to others about? The man who should have said that thing? The woman who shouldn’t have done that thing? Who are the people you talk about most to others?

Do you want to know something interesting about enemies? When we think about the traits we really can’t stand, there’s a familiar irritation. For example, I have a very hard time with people who judge others. I like to remind people that there was one group that Jesus really got angry at, and that was the group of judgmental religious leaders. See, doesn’t it feel good to have the same enemies as Jesus? But there’s a very subtle shift here. The very people I view as enemies, represent the characteristic in myself that I most dislike. I hate the fact that I judge people. I would like to deny it. But when I say I hate people who judge others, I’m judging them, aren’t I? And it works with other things, too. I also really struggle with not judging American Christians. And guess what? I’m an American Christian. Think of the personalities of the individuals you struggle to forgive. Could it be that you share a few traits with them, and these are things you wrestle with in forgiving yourself? God knows the depths of our hearts that we have not even begun to fathom. Philip Yancey, in his book, What’s so Amazing about Grace? writes: “Grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less.” Even these deep-set prejudices against ourselves and others, He has forgiven us for, should we turn to Him.

Shall we continue with our list? Let’s move into people groups. Which people groups do we make jokes about? Which people groups are enemies of our nations? Who are our historical enemies? Which countries would we always root against, no matter who they were playing in World Cup football?

Now that we’ve got our list, the next question is the point of this talk: How to love our enemies? Nelson Mandela says, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Here in The Netherlands, if there’s a big football match against Germany, you see the banners come out on the Dutch side asking when the Germans are going to return all our grandparents’ bicycles. Yeah, enemies. But the week after the war was over, the queen insisted that German be taught in Dutch schools because soon The Netherlands and Germany would be partners in trade. Again.

When I have traveled to places of conflict these last years, in order to write about the children’s voices, I have heard some remarkable stories of how people love their enemies. For one thing, it’s a very individual endeavor. It’s the one guard who did the beating, the one neighbor who betrayed the hiding place, or the one person in authority who turned away in a time of need. These are the enemies, receiving love. And in a curious twist of irony, without that forgiveness, the ones yielding the power then, become victims haunted by guilt and shame sometimes for decades afterwards.

How do people love these enemies? It starts with wanting to forgive them. And right away, this is where things get rough. Should we wait until someone steps forward and asks our forgiveness? Or should we forgive them with or without the request? Granting forgiveness is all wrapped up in the giving of grace. To give grace costs everything; to receive grace costs the recipient nothing. So who pays the price? We do. When we forgive, when we grant grace to our enemies, on the road to loving them, we pay a high price. And if the enemy is not even aware of the turmoil in our hearts, our price is higher still. But the highest of all prices is the price we pay when we do not forgive. The unforgiven person isn’t harmed by our bitterness and hardness of heart and anger. No. We are our own victims when we refuse to forgive, as resentment and thirst for revenge can eat up our very souls. We only have to look around the world to see where we end up when we pursue vengeance. An eye for an eye just means everyone ends up blind.

Why does obeying Jesus’ command to love our enemies cost us so much? Because it goes against our inherent sense of justice. Forgiveness is the miracle of grace, and granting grace is not fair. It’s not fair at all. It should be remembered that forgiveness is not the same as a pardon. And forgiveness can only be granted by the one who has been wronged. It cannot be assumed. But because granting grace is not fair, this is why Jesus used such extreme measures in the parables, to make the point perfectly clear: a father who ran toward his prodigal son, an employer who pays a full day’s wage to workers who came at the end of the day, strangers invited to a wedding banquet. Grace is an extreme measure. It does not fit in this world. Which is why it blows hearts wide open.

Think of one person on your list. Picture his or her face. Their eyes. Now. Do we want to forgive them? No. Do we want to want to forgive them? Maybe. Well, we are right, after all. I mean really right, otherwise they wouldn’t be our enemies. Ok. Do we hope to want to want to forgive them since that is what will bring us closer to loving that enemy, a command of our Lord, and after all, Jesus did say that our sins would be forgiven according to how we forgive the sins of others? Maybe a little more? Yeah. So, here’s the How to love your enemies prayer: Lord, help us to hope. Help us to hope to want to want to forgive this person. And we pray this often.

And then we find one thing about that person to thank God for. Something that reflects the image of God in them. We try to see them with God’s eyes. What would God see? Why do you think they are so angry, so on the defensive, so on the offensive? Could it be their pain? Their fear? Sure, no excuse for the cruel things they’ve done to us, but maybe a reason. And maybe when we sense their fear and pain, it might make that baby step easier to want to want to forgive.

And this is the key: When our hearts are changed by the redeeming power of God’s love as we realize all we are forgiven for, we may forgive our enemies.

In between the last war in Iraq and this one, I traveled to Iraq, and I met a dentist there. He had got a hold of a Bible and devoured it. He received Jesus into his heart, as did his young wife. When his Muslim family found out, his brothers beat him up and threw his wife to the ground and kicked her again and again until he finally cried out that they would recant, turn their backs on Jesus and embrace Islam again. I sat in a room with this man and his wife as he gently told me about the evening following the beatings. He and his wife had wanted to pray to Jesus. Wanted to say they were sorry, “But we had done the unforgivable,” he said. “But then I remembered the story of Peter, how he had denied Jesus three times, and Jesus forgave him. Surely if He could forgive Peter three times, he would forgive me and my wife the one time.” I asked him about his relationship with his brothers. He said, “We live in a refugee camp. We had to leave. But we forgive them, don’t we?” He looked at her and she nodded. I didn’t trust their answers and dug a little deeper. “You forgave them for beating you?” “We forgave them for throwing us out of the family, taking our house, and our savings.” “Why?” I asked. “Because if Jesus could forgive me for renouncing Him, then He is able to give me the courage and love to forgive my brothers.” “But isn’t it hard?” I asked. “Every day,” he said. Every day.

This is the price we pay when we forgive. It is an every day thing. Sometimes an every hour effort. And most of the time, no one even knows about it. No one but God. And He’s the only audience that matters.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that: “Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time when you must not do it. . . .You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does.”

There’s one more group of enemies I haven’t mentioned yet, and those are the enemies of the Church. The people, and governments in countries like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Maldives, Yemen, Bhutan, Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, China, and the many other countries where Christians are hunted down and tortured and imprisoned because they have received Jesus into their hearts. On June 1 all night until 6 a.m. on June 2 there will be a worldwide night of prayer for the persecuted Church. Let us remember to pray for the persecutors, as well as the persecuted. I have met Christians, imprisoned for their faith, who have told me of their guards becoming interested, and then asking about what it means to become Christian. And when prisoners forgive their guards, these men come to Christ.

The last group of enemies I want to look at—is . . . us. For whom are we the enemy? Which friends have we betrayed, let down, gossiped about, harmed? Which people groups view us as a threat? I met with a dear friend, an Arab Christian brother, three weeks ago in London. For many years he has been bringing Bibles and medicine and teaching materials into countries all over the Middle East, including Yemen, and especially Iraq. I asked him what he has seen and heard during his trips into that country, sometimes as he served as translator for American troops. He told me an average of 200 Iraqis are dying every day, from bombs and kidnappings and assassinations. He told me that all Christians are now being targeted in Iraq, since Christianity is now associated with tanks, and invasion, and the loss of honor and integrity. Arabs throughout the Middle East are calling the American and British forces in Iraq the Crusades. So now anything Christian is seen as a threat, as an enemy, and most of the inroads made on behalf of Christians in the Middle East, the milestones of this past century, have gone up in smoke. Even churches like the Assyrian Orthodox ones, who have been in Iraq since 100 AD, are being targeted as enemies. “What can we do?” I asked. I said, “If the troops withdraw, the anarchy will explode and minority groups condemned to genocide. If the troops remain, the integrity and honor of Iraqis is blackened, and they will fight the invasion.” My friend agreed and said we are stuck; this cycle of violence would have to run its course. “We wait and pray and focus on the young people, giving them a dream of peace, so they will have an alternative to terrorism.”

I am reminded of yet another quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”

In Bosnia, I listened to Muslim women from Srebrenica ask me for the names of Christian authors they could read on forgiveness and reconciliation. When I asked them why they, who had been so clearly wronged, sought to forgive, they said, “Our motivation is the very highest. If our generation does not forgive the Serbs, we condemn our children to the same hell we endured.”

My Arab friend likes to call me his enemy. He started doing it in Amman, Jordan, and it got worse as we traveled together from Baghdad to Mosul, near Nineveh. At first I was offended, until he introduced me to his lifelong friend, and called this man, his very worst enemy. When I met his youth pastor, my friend called his pastor a terrible, terrible enemy. And I started to catch on. The first time I saw him after this second war in Iraq began, I asked him, “Are we still enemies?” And he said, “We will always be enemies, no matter who is at war around us.”

Prayer: Holy Spirit, show us who our enemies are. And as we remember that painful incident, the anger, the betrayal, the victimization, the humiliation, let us do so this time with Jesus at our side. Heal us, that we would want to love our enemies. Give us the courage to ask forgiveness, and to grant it. “As we stand in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” (MLK, Jr.) In your Name Jesus, we pray.

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