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A Note Concerning Our Enemies: Loving Them, Understanding Them, Asserting Ourselves in the Midst of Them


                 Romans 12:14-21        2nd Kings 6:8-23                    


[1]         “Everyone liked him”, the person speaking of the departed says at the funeral, “everyone liked him; he didn’t have a single enemy.” I feel dreadful whenever I hear this, because if Mr. X didn’t have so much as one enemy, then he wasn’t identifiably Christian.  Jesus had enemies without number.  Insofar as we are identified with our Lord we shall never lack enemies ourselves, and shall never lack them just because he never lacked them.

“If only we were more loving, we’d have no enemies”, someone of much sentimentality but little understanding adds.   Jesus loved without limit, patiently submitted to slander and contempt, endured torment and death for the sake of any and all, and still had enemies. It simply isn’t true that love invariably fosters love in others, that love invariably undoes the enmity strangling someone else’s heart.   The same sun that melts ice also hardens clay.         Love poured upon some people hardens their resistance into hostility.

While we are debunking myths we should debunk another one; namely, that the world is a nice place, punctuated by enmity only occasionally. Jesus never said the world is a nice place; Jesus said the entire world lies in the grip of the evil one. Jesus insists that three features characterize the evil one: absence of righteousness, absence of love, absence of truth.   The absence of righteousness is sin; the absence of love is murderous enmity; the absence of truth is falsehood and delusion.  Since Jesus insists that this is what riddles the world, I’m not about to say that the world is nice.

Let’s be honest. It isn’t only the world that seethes with enmity; the church does too.   Scripture reminds us that the church is infiltrated with enemies of the gospel. Peter speaks of false teachers who have sneaked into the church.         Paul speaks of those who mutilate the gospel.  John speaks of those who stand within the Christian fellowship but whose hearts are far from the truth.   And Jude? Jude’s entire epistle is a white-hot denunciation of those who posture themselves as church leaders yet pervert the faith and discipleship of others within it. Jude’s language (“worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, waterless clouds, fruitless trees” — he stops only because his pen ran out of ink) is so very vivid just because enemies of the gospel harass the church relentlessly.

In a world characterized by enmity we shouldn’t be surprised that to identify ourselves with Jesus Christ in his exposure of the world’s depravity means we shall find his enemies harassing us as well. Think for a minute of our Lord’s healing of the man born blind.   Who would ever oppose it? No one thinks someone suffering the tragedy of blindness should be left blind. Still, when Jesus restores sight to a blind man some people are enraged because he did it on the Sabbath. Others fume and spew because they resent his manifest authority.  Still others hate him because he looks them in the eye and says, “This man who has been blind from birth; his physical condition is an illustration of your spiritual condition.”   Now they are incensed. But our Lord hasn’t finished. “Because you think you can see, because you insist you are spiritually perceptive, your guilt remains.  And on the day of judgement you will be without excuse.”   What is utterly unobjectionable — enabling a blind person to see — quickly becomes the occasion of murderous enmity.  After this, “Bad Friday” can’t fail to arrive.  Since the world is steeped in hostilty, Jesus both asserts and proves, the apostle Paul’s reminder to young Timothy is unarguable: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12)


[2]         Contrary to what most people think, Christians don’t inhabit a Pollyanna world. Christians are the most realistic of all people.  Therefore we are going to admit that our enemies are just that: enemies. Enemies aren’t friends in disguise. Enemies can hurt; they’re dangerous.

Since enemies are dangerous, they can’t be trusted.  Yes, we are to love them and pray for them.  We are to love them, says Jesus, as he loved them to the end. But nowhere does our Lord tell us to trust them. He didn’t trust them himself.

While we are talking about the danger that our enemies are, we should carefully delineate the different kinds of danger they are.  One kind of danger is what our enemies can do to us outwardly.  They can slander us, cheat us, exploit us, ruin our chances for promotion at work, turn our friends against us, and so on.  None of this is to be discounted.  At the same time, however, our enemies are never as great an outward danger to us as they are an inward danger.  While they can do much to us outwardly, what they can do inwardly is far worse; namely, warp us, disfigure us, poison us.  It’s one thing for our enemies to do some one thing that hurts us; it’s another thing (and far worse) for them to turn us bitter, sour, caustic.

We need to think about this at greater length.  It’s one thing for us to be hurt; one thing and no small thing.         Yet a much greater matter is our being rendered embittered people whose cynicism and joylessness render us as welcome as bird ’flu.  It’s only wisdom to want to recognize our enemies; but it’s only folly to think that everyone is now our enemy.  A measure of paranoia may be humorous in others for a while, but only for a while; paranoia in ourselves is never funny.  And paranoia beyond the smallest measure is nothing less than tragic.

The worst kind of damage that our enemies can inflict on us is to turn us into haters. Becoming slightly paranoid means we’ve been rendered a minor psychological casualty; becoming a hater, however, means we’ve been rendered a major spiritual casualty. We must be sure we understand this point. Regardless of what kind of threat our enemies may pose to us (loss of opportunity, loss of reputation, whatever), there’s a spiritual threat they always pose: that poisonous hatred which tells everyone that our spirit has been curdled and every word we utter, every gesture we make, thereafter contradicts our profession of Jesus Christ.

The Greek word peirasmos means temptation, trial and testing all at once. When we are victimized by our enemies we are immediately tempted to hate.  But because hatred is sin, the temptation to hate is a trial before God. To succumb to the temptation and fall into hatred is to have the trial finding us guilty. On the other hand, to resist the temptation and fend off the hatred that laps at us is to be exonerated. The hatred that laps at us is also a form of testing.  Testing in scripture is a metaphor taken from the refining of precious metals. When metallic ore (ore being clumps of ugly-looking rock) is refined it is subject to intense heat and pressure.  Impurities, worthless accretions, are burned off so that only what is valuable and useful and attractive is left.  Any temptation is at the same time a testing; any temptation is that process, under God, by which the worthless accretions that besmirch our character have been brought to our attention and can now be burned out of us. When next temptation whispers to us that we have the right to hate just because we’ve been hurt, we must remember that we are in the gravest spiritual danger. We must pray to resist the temptation, and therefore to have the judge exonerate us at our trial, and thereafter to emerge with our character tested, refined, more nearly like our Lord’s who prayed for his enemies.

While we are pondering this point we should consider that text from the older testament that is quoted so often and is often juxtaposed with the teaching of Jesus. The text, of course, speaks of “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” People assume (incorrectly) that the older testament countenances vindictiveness while the newer does not. People assume (incorrectly) that the Hebrew mind is bloodthirsty and insists on limb for limb.

Not so. Just the opposite, in fact.   The force of “eye for eye” is no more than an eye for an eye.  In other words, punishment for a crime must never be more extreme than the crime itself. Punishment for a crime must never be the pretext for indulging one’s own nastiness. If someone shoplifts a garden hose in Canadian Tire we don’t jail that person for 25 years. If a teenager joyrides in our car we don’t insist on solitary confinement.  The purpose of “eye for eye” (that is, no more than an eye for an eye) is to cut off the spiral of violence before it can even begin. We know how the spiral of violence spirals: you insult me, I punch you, you stab me, I murder you. The purpose of “no more than eye for eye” is to ensure that the initial violation doesn’t precipitate a spiral of violence.


[3]         While we are on this topic we should understand that we are always tempted to escalate violence because we fear that we are outnumbered or outgunned. We fear that our foes are greater than our friends; we fear that we are in danger of annihilation. When someone aims his shotgun at us and we feel our puny slingshot is no match for it, we then load up our rocket launcher to make sure we aren’t outgunned. Alas, by this time we’ve lost sight of something that all biblically-informed people should never forget: God’s people are never outgunned.

The prophet Elisha tells us as much in one of the grand, old stories about him. The king of Syria , having suffered repeated military losses at the hands of Israel , concludes that his military plans are being leaked to Israel . He thinks (ridiculously) that the prophet Elisha is the source of the leak.  He decides to kill Elisha. He orders chariots and horses to surround the city of Dothan where Elisha is staying. In the morning Elisha’s youthful helper looks out, sees Syrian charioteers everywhere, knows that the city can’t defend itself, and melts down, wailing, “What are we going to do?”  Elisha cries out, “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” The young man looks out a second time. This time, however, he’s looking through visionary eyes; he’s seeing visionary sights. He sees the mountain nearby aflame with even more horses and chariots of fire protecting Elisha. The enemies of God’s people never outnumber or outgun God’s people. The psalms in particular are full of this conviction.

In the wilderness Jesus is assaulted by the tempter, apparently alone, apparently defenceless, apparently resourceless.  When Mark narrates this incident he adds a line we customarily read past. Mark adds, “And the angels ministered to Jesus.” In fact our Lord wasn’t alone or defenceless or resourceless.   Months later, perhaps years later, when he was in Gethsemane , beside himself at the prospect not of dying but of the spiritual horror that awaited him, sweating so profusely that he dripped as though he had been gashed, Luke adds, “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him.” What is given our Lord is given every one of his people.  For this reason John sums it all up most succinctly: “He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.”


[4]         Everyone is aware that Christians are commanded to love their enemies and pray for them. Obviously it’s important for our enemies that we love them and pray for them.  (It’s important for them, plainly, since as long as we love them and pray for them we shan’t kill them.)   We are often slower to understand, however, that it’s important for us as well, for otherwise we are going to kill ourselves.  To pray for our enemies is to be taken out of ourselves, away from ourselves, away from our injuries and resentments and grudges.   To be taken out of ourselves, away from ourselves, is to see that the enemy who causes us to suffer is suffering far more himself.  Think of the person who bullies us, or who tries to.  Bullies cause people to suffer.  Yet bullies suffer enormously themselves, for deep inside every bully there beats the heart of a coward.   Now a coward isn’t a fearful person.  All of us are fearful in different circumstances.   The bravest person is fearful, for bravery occurs only in the midst of fear and has no meaning apart from fear.   The coward, on the other hand, is the person who is controlled by his fear. Can you imagine the suffering of the person who is fear-controlled day-in and day-out?

Think of the person whose hostile rage immobilizes us and silences us. Her terrible rage is born of terrible frustration, and frustration is nothing more than helplessness. It’s only as we pray for her that we can get beyond our own upset and see that she is so frustrated herself that she can’t cope.  Someone who can’t cope, and can’t help humiliating herself by her blow-up over inability to cope; this person merits our pity.

There are many ways of being underprivileged.  One way of being underprivileged is having too few tools in one’s tool box. The person whose vocabulary is so meagre he can only swear at us; the person whose explosive temper tells everyone he’s a four-year old dressed up in a man’s business suit; the person whose envy shrivels her own heart more than it damages anyone else; these people have virtually no tools in their tool box. Underprivileged?         They are so very underprivileged as to be pitiable.

At the same time, however much the nastiness of our enemies arises from their own suffering, I should never deny that some of their nastiness (like ours) arises from their perverse heart.  It arises (like ours) simply from their deep-dyed sinfulness.  But this is no reason to stop praying for them.  After all, the person who is unaware of her sin is in a dreadful way; the person who is aware of her sin and remains indifferent to it is in worse spiritual condition.         Then pray for our enemies we must, for their spiritual condition is crucial.

When we pray for our enemies our own wound, while gaping perhaps, is no longer in danger of infecting.  And when we pray for our enemies we understand as never before the prayer of our Lord concerning his enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they are blind to their own heart-condition.”


[5]         One aspect of a Christian approach to our enemies is how we are to regard them; another aspect of our approach is what we are to do in the midst of them. To love our enemies and pray for them never means that we are to render ourselves doormats. We should assert ourselves. Jesus declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord.” To love our enemies never means that we are to invite additional assaults; it never means that we subtly send out the message, “Step on me again.”   Most important, to love our enemies never means that we abandon the conviction or the truth or the integrity that called forth someone else’s hostility in the first place.  To love our enemies never means that we are to acquiesce in their evil.

In Romans 12 Paul warns us about being overcome by evil even as he urges us to overcome evil with good.         There are many ways of being overcome by evil.  One way of being overcome by evil is so to fear the assault of our enemies that we acquiesce in their evil just to avoid their assault.  We must never do this. We must always resist evil, even as we strive to overcome evil with good.


[6]         We all know that we live in a fallen world where enmity abounds.  Christians know too that Jesus Christ has brought with him a renewed world that has eclipsed a fallen world destined to disappear.  Therefore the final truth for all of God’s people is voiced for us by the psalmist in Psalm 56:

“This I know, that God is for me.

                                                          What can man do to me?


                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 April 2006