The Final Step: Blessing Your Enemies
June 8, 2003
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36 ESV).
“Love your enemies.”
This may be the most difficult thing Jesus ever said. Even when we hear it in church, it is extremely difficult to believe that Jesus really means what he says. But in case we have any doubts about this, consider the way this command is explained:
Do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you.
Pray for those who abuse you.
But even if that is not enough, Jesus gives us some examples so we can’t weasel our way out of the truth. We can ignore what he says if we want to, but we can’t deny that he said it.
If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.
If they take your shirt, give them your jacket too.
If a beggar comes to you, give him something.
If someone steals your money, do not demand it back.
Then we have Luke’s version of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. But if that’s not enough, Jesus anticipates our major objection: “I love people who love me.” As Frank Burns said on the TV show MASH, “It’s nice to be nice to nice people.” Sure it is, but that doesn’t win any points with the Lord. Even sinners are nice to nice people.
Then like any good preacher, Jesus repeats his main point just in case we haven’t gotten it yet: “Love your enemies.” And do good even to people who you know will treat you rudely in return. Be willing for others to take advantage of you. Don’t go around thinking that you deserve something in return. That’s not why you forgive others and that’s not why you love your enemies. After all, you may forgive someone who was a jerk and they may still be a jerk after you forgive them. And you may love your enemies and they may still be your enemies tomorrow morning.
Why Live Like This?
Let’s stop for a moment and observe these are truly radical sayings by Jesus. After the first service on Sunday, a man commented to me that everything the world teaches us about human relationships is wrong. Compared to what most of us have heard, the words of Jesus are (literally) out-of-this-world. That is, they come from another place altogether. If we take these words seriously (as we should), we will often find ourselves at odds with the conventional wisdom most people take for granted. Why, then, should we live this way? What’s in it for us? Jesus gives us two answers to those questions:
1) You will receive a great reward. I think he primarily means a great reward in heaven. But there are also great rewards even in this life when we love our enemies. Perhaps the greatest reward is that by loving our enemies, we are set free from bitterness and anger. Love and hate cannot coexist in the same place at the same time. If we love our enemies, we will not hate them. It’s really as simple as that.
2) You will demonstrate that you are a true child of God. God specializes in being kind to the unkind and showing mercy to mean people. He specializes in showering grace upon sinners and he loves to turn enemies into friends. When we love our enemies, we’re showing forth the character of God to the world and proving that we are part of God’s family. There ought to be a family resemblance that even the unsaved can spot.
That’s why the text ends with these words: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 ESV). Did you get that? “Your Father.” If we say that God is our Father, then we have obligation to show forth his character to the world. And what better way to do it than by the way we treat our enemies?
Who Are My Enemies?
That leads to a very practical question: Who are my enemies? In the broadest sense, an enemy is anyone who turns against me. The dictionary defines an enemy as “one who feels hatred toward, intends injury to, or opposes the interests of another.” It’s important as we think about what Jesus said that we not restrict the term “enemy” to people like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. They are enemies of our nation but those two men are not my personal enemies. My personal enemies tend to be much closer to home. In fact, home is the first place to look for your enemies. Jesus himself said, “A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matthew 10:36 NIV). In that very passage he specified three very close relationships that go sour:
A father and his son,
A mother and her daughter,
A mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law.
We can easily extrapolate from that list to other close relationships, including parent-child, husband-wife, and on out to grandparents, uncles, aunts, and then to various distant relatives. The enemies we are told to love usually are not people in Iraq or North Korea. Most of us will never visit those two countries. But we do have to go home every day to face people who may or may not be glad to see us. Every week we work with people who may dislike us. We may even come to church and see people we would rather not see. So let’s just think on those three categories: home, work, church. That’s where many of our enemies will be found.
“God is calling me to forgive”
This week I received a very honest e-mail from someone who read the printed version of last week’s sermon. I have never met this person and as far as I know, the writer has never attended Calvary. Here is part of the e-mail:
“I am in the depths of unrelenting and what appeared to be immovable unforgiveness due to serious wrongs and abuse committed against me by a very close believer. I have read anew the “forgiveness” scriptures. I have been receiving counsel. I have bought ALL of the forgiveness books. But nothing has touched my heart, spirit, and understanding like this message. Even as I write, I am crying, as I know God is calling me to forgive this person FOR HIS sake, even as He has forgiven me. And as I do, as I stop dwelling on the pain and hurt of it all, the years of anger, bitterness, and resentment will subside in me.”
Those words have the ring of truth about them. Christians can hurt each other deeply and repeatedly. Sometimes we do it deliberately. Our feet are made of clay because we are sinners too. In a fallen world the people we thought we could trust will often let us down. Sometimes the people we love the most will turn against us. And sometimes it will happen over and over again and we will discover that our loved ones have become our enemies.
Let me be more specific:
Your children could be your enemies.
Your husband could be your enemy.
Your wife could be your enemy.
Your parents could be your enemies.
Certainly your ex-wife or your ex-husband could be your enemy. It isn’t just people “out there”— somewhere, nameless, faceless, anonymous evil people who are our enemies. Sooner or later people we love will hurt us deeply and at that point, and for at least that moment, they have become our enemies. And if we are honest enough to admit it, we have become their enemies too.
That’s why the words of Jesus are so difficult to obey. We are being instructed to love people very close to us who have hurt us deeply. We are to love those who despitefully use us and abuse us and victimize us again and again. It’s not easy to do this in any case but it is much harder to love when we feel deeply and repeatedly violated and our trust has been destroyed.
Yet the command remains: “Love your enemies.” We cannot escape it. This is the final step in forgiveness. We have not totally forgiven until we can bless those who have hurt us so deeply. To say it another way, we cannot be set free until we set them free to be blessed by the Lord.
So the question then becomes both personal and practical. How do we love our enemies? I have a few suggestions to make:
1) Greet them. Greet your enemies. This is a simple step we often overlook. One part of loving our enemies is to greet them graciously when we see them. Sometimes (often, perhaps) instead of turning the other cheek, we turn our whole body away so we won’t have to say hello to someone who has hurt us. Some of us have been quite adept at looking the other way, ducking into a room, crossing the street, or even using Caller ID to keep from greeting those who have hurt us. But if we only greet our friends, what benefit is that? Do not even sinners greet each other? One part of loving your enemies is to greet them instead of avoiding them.
2) Disarm them. That’s what you do when you turn the other cheek or go the second mile. You disarm them by doing the very thing they least expect.
3) Do Good to Them. It’s fascinating that both times in this passage when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he follows it immediately by saying, “Do good to them,” so that we won’t miss the point. Doing good to your enemies means seeing beyond your pain and their meanness to their humanity. It means seeing them as people made in the image of God and understanding that there is something twisted inside that causes them to do what they do. “Doing good” means that you do what will promote their healing despite the way they have treated you. The idea is, you make the first move. You send the e-mail. You pick up the phone. You make the contact. You bridge the gap. You set up the appointment. This week I spoke with a businessman who is greatly gifted in sharing Christ with others. He has a knack for saying the right thing at the right time so that people are eager to know Jesus. What’s his secret? He said there are four keys to being used by God to help others: Show up, hang loose, trust God, stay alert. Those four keys will work for you if you want to help those who have hurt you.
4) Refuse to speak evil of them. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Bless those who curse you.” It means you refuse to think evil thoughts and you refuse to speak evil words against those who have wronged you. Proverbs has a great deal to say about the power of words. “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21 NIV). Every time we open our mouth, life or death comes out. I am increasingly impressed with this thought: Forgiveness in many cases is not possible because we will not stop talking. As long as we talk over and over again about how others have hurt us, we will never find the strength to forgive. At some point, we have to stop talking and start forgiving.
5) Thank God for them. If you have an honest-to-goodness enemy, you should frame their picture and thank God for them every day. If you believe in the sovereignty of God, you must believe that your enemy is sent to you by God’s design and with God’s approval. Your enemy could not torment you apart from God’s permission. Behind your enemy stands the hand of God. And God would never permit it if he did not intend to bring something good out of it. You should take a picture of your enemy, frame it, put it where you can see it, and thank God for your enemy every time you look at the picture.
6) Pray for them. When Martin Niemoller, a German pastor, was arrested by the Nazis in World War II, he prayed daily from his prison cell for his captors. Other prisoners asked why he prayed for those who were his enemies. “Do you know anyone who needs your prayers more than your enemies?” he replied. But what if you hate the person you are praying for? Tell that to the Lord. He won’t be surprised. Then say something like this, “Lord, I hate this person, but you already know that. I ask you to love this person through me because I can’t do it in my own power. I ask you for a love I don’t have and can’t begin to produce.” God will not turn you away when you come with an honest heart, admitting you need his love to flow through you.
7) Ask God to bless them. Here’s a simple way to do that. When faced with someone who has mistreated you, ask God to do for them what you want God to do for you. Seek the blessing for them that you want God to do for you. Think of it this way: The greater the hurt, the greater the potential blessing that will come when we totally forgive and by God’s grace, bless those who curse us.
Let me offer one final word: Your enemy is a gift from God to you. Though you don’t know it and often can’t see it, the person who has hurt you so deeply is a gift from God to you. To say that is not to excuse evil or to condone mistreatment. It is to say exactly what Joseph meant when he said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20 ESV). Our enemies humble us, they keep us on our knees, they reveal our weakness, and they expose our total need for God. Just as David needed King Saul to pursue him, to persecute him and repeatedly attempt to kill him, we need the enemies God sends to us. If we didn’t need them, he wouldn’t send them. Therefore, we thank God who knows best, and we love our enemies the best way we can. Often God raises up an enemy to see if we really want to be like Jesus. He will keep our enemies alive and well as long as we need them.
“I would rather die than hate you.”
In 1957 Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on “Loving Your Enemies” at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. As he came to the end of his sermon he said there is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential person who ever came into this world. In the cross of Christ, the love of God has broken through into human history. Now we know what love looks like in a world filled with hatred, distrust, bitterness, pain, mistreatment and abuse. As the hymn writer said, “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.” It is a message from God that love is the only way. It’s the only way to heaven and it’s the only way to live on the earth. If we believe in Jesus at all, we must say to our enemies, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” When Jesus walks with us, we will find the strength to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who despitefully use us.
I come now to the close of this sermon series on “Total Forgiveness.” It has been a healing experience for many in our congregation and it has been a cleansing experience for me personally. When R. T. Kendall wrote the book Total Forgiveness, he mentioned a song called, “Let the past be past at last.” That’s the beauty of forgiveness. When we learn to forgive and be forgiven, the past can be past at last. Last night at my son Nick’s graduation party, someone came up to me and said, “I took a walk this evening with two friends.” She meant that during the party she and two friends took a walk half a block from where we live in Oak Park. “We walked to the place where your van was wrecked and we stood there looking at the tree the van hit.” That was almost ten years ago. I hadn’t thought about the wreck in a long time. So much has happened since then. That night four people got in our van and took a joy ride. Less than a block from our house, it went out of control and hit a tree at a speed of approximately 55 miles an hour. All four people were injured and the van was totally destroyed. Looking back now, I see clearly that hitting the tree was a mercy from God. If the van had not hit the tree, it would have hit a house 50 feet further and someone would likely have been killed. The person who spoke with me was in the van that night as were the other two people. She said they stood and talked about the wreck for a while. Then she said, “I asked them to forgive me for my part in it. And they said, ‘We forgave you for that a long time ago.’” Then they spontaneously hugged her. “This is going to help me in so many ways,” she told me. My friend is right. Forgiveness always helps us because it sets us free from fear and guilt and it sets us free from anger and bitterness so that we can get on with life. It is a transforming gift from God. May God who has forgiven us in Christ now teach us to walk in forgiving love toward each other. Let the past be past at last. Amen.