There is a funny old Irish curse that goes like this:
May those that love us, love us, and for those that don't love us, may God turn their hearts, and if he can't turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we know them by their limping.
I’m not sure if that’s exactly what Jesus had in mind when he talked about praying for our enemies and blessing those who persecute us. In Matthew 5:43-45, he said it this way:
“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 children of your Father in heaven.”
Do we go the cynical way of praying for those who persecute us by turning to imprecatory prayers? Can we simply say that we “love our enemies,” “bless their hearts,” and then move on?
Or is Jesus calling us to something different here? What are real-world ways that we can love our enemies?
Here are seven ways we can love our enemies.
1. Pray for Them
This might not seem like a “real world” way to love your enemy, but this is the first step to truly loving those we might deem an enemy. Jesus explicitly tells us to pray for those who persecute us.
When he says this, he doesn’t mean to pray for their destruction or find your favorite imprecatory prayer to recite. Instead, we see Jesus modeling this for us when he prays that God would forgive those who are crucifying Him.
It's hard to pray for someone and loathe them at the same time. It’s difficult to harbor ill feelings and wish ill will against someone as you are taking them before the throne room of God. Yes, they might have hurt you.
Yes, we might be entirely the victim. And yes, praying for them might mean praying for their repentance, and it might mean praying for the exposure of their sin. But even in these, we are not praying vindictively, and we are praying that the Lord will bless them.
2. Be Genuinely Respectful and Represent Them Accurately
One of my favorite television shows is the classic The Dick Van Dyke Show. In one particular episode, both Rob (Dick Van Dyke) and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) tell their friend about a fight they had last night.
In each instance, the one telling the story is the hero, and the other is a scoundrel. It’s humorous because we know our own temptation to present our “enemy” in the worst light possible and to then present ourselves as charming and innocent as a dove.
One way to truly love our opponents is to represent them accurately. It is the respectful thing to do. I think of this when engaging in online discussions.
Am I representing them in a way in which they might be proud to own? If I tell others of their position, would they be willing to say, “Yes, that is exactly my position?” Am I finding the best arguments for their position or for their cause?
We love our enemies by doing this — and it’s hard to do this. It’s much easier to make them monsters. Or maybe they truly are monstrous. In such cases, it can feel as if we’re defending evil by casting them in the best light possible.
But in reality, we want to see the truth stand. Being people of truth by portraying our opponent in the best light possible may actually be the means God uses to expose the darker side of things (and this, too, would be for their greater good).
3. Look for Common Ground
If you’re into politics, think of your political “enemy” for a moment. Do they desire happiness? Do they want to see their family healthy, happy, and secure? Do they want to make friends, have good relationships, live in peace, and have hope for a brighter future?
Probably. At the end of the day, your “enemy” on the other side has the same basic desires that you have. The difference is that you have opposing strategies for acquiring those. And sometimes you have even dissimilar definitions of those desires.
This little exercise, though, shows that we often have much in common. One of the ways to love our enemy is to find common ground. That’s part of what you see in Matthew 5.
God causes the rain and the sun to shine on both believers and unbelievers. There is common grace, and because of this, there is common ground. We can build from common ground.
4. Keep from Bitterness
I am a little hesitant to include this one because this statement is often used by abusers to DARVO their victims and community. DARVO is an abusive strategy to deny, attack, and reverse the victim and offender.
This would look like someone sinning against another person, deeply wounding them, and then making the narrative about that person’s awful response (bitterness) towards the perpetrator.
Telling people to stop being bitter has been an effective tactic that abusers use to move the conversation away from their sin.
While this is true, Scripture is also true. Bitterness really does poison us. We really should sever the root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:14-15). One of the most damaging things about spiritual abuse is that truths are hijacked for sordid ends.
Abusive people can use good tools to accomplish wrong ends. It’s true that we should try to keep our hearts from bitterness — and doing this is a way of practicing love towards our enemies.
Bitterness is a way of cutting off hope from the one who has sinned against us. It’s giving up hope that the other person might change. It is forever confining them in the prison of their guilt.
Yes, they need to repent. And yes, that repentance ought to happen before we start talking about reconciliation. But I should be aware of the danger of bitterness creeping into my own heart.
5. Proclaim the Gospel to Them
The best way to love someone is to share Christ with them. But doing this also impacts our own hearts towards our enemy.
When we think of them through the grid of creation-fall-redemption-glory or God-man-Christ-response it changes the way we view them.
We begin to see them as God sees them. This will absolutely wreck my own definitions of “enemy.”
Oddly enough, there is a passive-aggressive way we could proclaim the gospel to someone. We could distance ourselves and take a cold posture. Kind of like saying, “Help them, Jesus, because I can’t stand them.”
This is far from how the New Testament paints our task of being ministers of reconciliation. Our hearts should be broken, and we should long to see their redemption, pleading with them to grab hold of Christ.
6. Listen to Their Story
Another way to love our enemies is to simply listen to them. Take an interest in their life. Hear their story. Let them speak. Why are they passionate about the things they are passionate about? What unique brokenness do they have in their life?
For one, this can help us gain a new perspective. But simply listening to someone else’s story can be incredibly diffusing. Doing this also will help me see them in a new light.
And as I do this, I can better love and serve them because I will know their unique strengths and challenges. What if “be quick to listen and slow to speak” is not only counsel for our loved ones but also for our enemies?
7. Highlight the Imago Dei
Every person is created in the image of God. This means that there are things that we can encourage in the life of anyone — even our greatest enemies. What if we view others through the lens of hope instead of hatred?
What if rather than making a list of all the things, which I disapprove about another person, I made a list of all the ways in which I can see the fingerprint of God on their life? What would happen if I was intentionally encouraging in those areas?
Understanding that every person is made in the image of God helps me to see people as they actually are. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. My “enemy” probably isn’t actually my enemy.
And even if they have made themselves my enemy, or they have made themselves the enemy of Christ, it is a store of a broken and marred image. God’s glory is being shattered in their life. When I think of it this way it changes the way I interact with them.
Find where you see the image of God in their life and highlight it.
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