Why You Need Your Enemies and Your Enemies Need You—Part One
March 1, 2008
I suppose one of the hardest commands in the Bible to obey is the command of Jesus that we should pray for our enemies (Luke 6:27). It is hard because prayer is the last thing we want to do for our enemies. Mostly, there a lot of things we would like to do to our enemies–like getting even or making them suffer like we have suffered.
Here’s the background: King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had attacked Jerusalem and sent many of the people into exile. It was a humiliating experience for the people of God. It was also a punishment from the Lord because of their rebellion. In a true sense, they got what was coming to them–70 years in captivity in a foreign land, ruled by pagans who did not worship God.
Not all of the Jews were taken to Babylon. Jeremiah was one of those who were left behind. Chapter 29 records a letter he sent from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon in order to encourage them. God’s message is unexpected: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7). God’s word is very simple: I put you in Babylon for a purpose. Although I know you are humiliated, discouraged and angry, do not despair. And pray for the prosperity of Babylon.
Read that last phrase of verse 7 very carefully: “If it prospers, you too will prosper.” Here is a message from God for all of us. Many who read these words find themselves caught in a bad situation at work, or at school, or at home. Someone has hurt you deeply and it’s all you can do not to strike back. With all your energy, you barely hold back the bitterness. And some of it sloshes over the top now and then. You couldn’t pray for your enemies if your life depended on it. But God says to do it anyway. That’s the whole point of Jeremiah 29:7.
Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, is used three times in this verse. Besides peace, it means blessing, wholeness, completeness, the absence of conflict, prosperity. Here is the shocking fact—at least it would have been shocking to the Jewish exiles. God ties their blessing to the blessing of the Babylonians. This seems counterintuitive since the exiles were God’s people and the Babylonians were pagans. He is really saying that they were better off in Babylon, and Babylon is better off because they were there. This is the Old Testament version of Jesus’ call for believers to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Said another way, we can summarize this verse thusly:
You need Babylon!
Babylon needs you!
Immediately one can imagine any number of objections the Jews might have raised:
“These people are pagans.”
“They invaded our land.”
“They destroyed our city.”
“They burned down the temple we built to worship God.”
“They’re vile people—killers and rapists.”
“Why would I want to pray for them? They don’t deserve it.”
That last point is certainly true. In fact, all those points were true. The Babylonians were not nice people. You really can’t be a nice barbaric killer. There is no such category. To spread their kingdom, the Babylonians acted ruthlessly against anyone who dared to oppose them. Life was cheap, death was easy, torture a means of sending a message to future foes.
God says to his discouraged, dislocated people, “I know you don’t like it here, but that doesn’t matter. You’re going to be here for a while so settle down and make the best of it. Don’t treat the Babylonians as they treated you. Seek to bless and be a blessing. And pray for the Babylonians. They certainly need the prayers. And you, my people, need to pray. As you pray, I will bless them. And in blessing them, you too will be blessed.”
Nothing seems more natural than to hate those who have mistreated us. But here we learn a better way. After I had preached on this topic, a man came to me afterwards and said, “Everything the world says about human relationships is wrong!”
The world says, Get even. God says, Seek the good of those who have harmed you.
The world says, Get angry. God says, Pray for them.
The world says, Look for chances to make them suffer. God says, Look for chances to do good to them.
The world says, Don’t waste time loving bad people. God says, I want you to love them anyway.
We need to pray for our enemies—and they need our prayers.
If we don’t pray for our enemies, who will?
If we don’t pray for our enemies, how will they ever change?
If we don’t pray for our enemies, how will we ever be free from bitterness?
Every time we are faced with people who mistreat us, we have three options:
1) We can hate them with total hatred. That accomplishes nothing.
2) We can struggle to hold back our anger. That will emotionally exhaust us.
3) We can pray for God to bless them. That opens the door for God to bless us as well.
Jeremiah 29:7 raises some questions we need to consider.
I. Where Do My Enemies Come From?
On a human level, there are many answers to that question. Enemies most often come from those closest to us. Sometimes people turn against us because of foolish things we do. Other times we may suffer at the hands of someone against whom we have done no wrong. People may disparage us because of our appearance, our background, our personal beliefs, our ethnic origin, our skin color, our position in life, our money (or lack thereof), or for a million other reasons. They may think we are boring, empty, trivial, a bother to them and an impediment to their career. They may be prejudiced against us for no good reason. Perhaps they dislike us because we have succeeded where they failed. Who knows? Enemies rarely explain themselves.
On a deeper level, our enemies come from God. He allows them to enter our lives for reasons that are rarely apparent to us at the time. The case of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50) illustrates this truth. When his brothers threw him into the cistern and then sold him to the Midianites, they had only evil in their hearts. When Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him, she lied because of her injured pride. When he was thrown into jail, no one could foresee that eventually he would be the Prime Minister of Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh. And even Joseph himself had no idea what it all meant until years later, during the great famine, when his brothers approached him, thinking he was an Egyptian, not recognizing him, believing him to be long dead. Then and only then did God’s plan come into focus. That’s why three times in Genesis 45:5-8, Joseph declares to his brothers that God had sent him to Egypt to put him in a position where he could one day deliver his family and preserve a godly heritage on the earth. Years later Joseph utters these famous words that sum up his understanding of God’s sovereignty in what his brothers had done: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Only a man with a deep belief in the sovereignty of God could utter those words after suffering so much mistreatment.
In the same way, the Babylonians meant to conquer the Jews and humiliate them, but God meant it for good. And not just the good of the Jewish people but also the good of the Babylonians.
So where do your enemies come from? They come from God in this sense. If he didn’t allow it, your enemies could not trouble you.
II. 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 this that we not restrict the term “enemy” to people like Osama bin Laden. 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). 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. It certainly includes people at work and those who attend church with us. 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. If this teaching of Jesus is going to work, it must work first in the relationships closest to us. God places inside every family some people who rub us the wrong way. I heard a Bible teacher say that God puts in every family people whom he uses to prepare for leadership in the world. He puts a Judas, an Absalom, a Peter, a Barnabas and Timothy in every family. That’s why your closest friends, your strongest supporters, and your biggest critics will probably all come from your own flesh and blood. You have to learn to deal with the people closest to you before you can impact the world around you. 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.
Dash Their Babies Against the Rocks!
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. Something like that had happened to the Jews in exile. They hated the Babylonians with a fierce hatred. Consider the final words of Psalm 137.
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (vv. 8-9).
Ever prayed like that? “Lord, may their babies be dashed against the rocks.” There is no way to soften those words or to dim the anger they express. The Jewish exiles are asking God to send someone to invade Babylon, to do to them as they had done to Jerusalem, and then to take their babies and dash them against the rocks. You can actually find a metrical version of Psalm 137 in the “New Psalter” of 1696. The last two verses read like this:
Proud Babel’s daughter, doomed to be
of grief and woe the wretched prey;
Blessed is the man who shall to thee
the wrongs thou lay’st on us repay.
Thrice blessed, who with just rage possessed,
and deaf to all the parents’ moans,
Shall snatch thy infants from the breast,
and dash their heads against the stones.
It’s hard to imagine closing a worship service this way. Yet we can’t deny that Psalm 137 is part of the inspired text of the Bible. Isaiah 13 contains a prophecy of God’s judgment against Babylon. Verses 15-18 explain how God answered the prayer of Psalm 137:
Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.
Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold. Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children.
Even though the prayer of Psalm 137 seems extreme, God answered it literally, and he did it by using one pagan kingdom (the Medes) to judge another pagan kingdom (the Babylonians). Thus does God’s judgment come on those who so badly mistreated his people.
We Don’t Have to Choose
It’s not as if we have to choose between loving our enemies and hoping they are someday punished. If we do our part (loving them), God can certainly take care of judging them. And in the meantime, we will be blessed if we work for the prosperity of our enemies and pray for God’s blessings upon them. If that sounds confusing, then just remember this.
If we remain bitter, we cannot get better.
If we try to get even with those who hurt us, we are mostly hurting ourselves.
If we try to punish our enemies, we are usurping God’s authority.
But if we love them and bless them and pray for them, things will go better for us and for them. And we can then sleep well at night, knowing that if they need punishment, God can take care of it in his own time and in his own way. That’s the real meaning of Jeremiah 29:7.
Of course, it is easier to talk about this abstractly. It is much harder to love our enemies on a daily basis. 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” (Luke 6:27). We cannot escape it. This is a key part of our own spiritual journey from bitterness to forgiveness to freedom. To say it another way, we cannot be set free until we set them free to be blessed by the Lord.
That’s as far as we’ll go for the moment. In Part 2 of this message, we’ll talk about seven specific ways we can love our enemies.