Back when I was a kid, I would hear the words of Jesus telling us to love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us and wonder . . . do I have enemies? Did the popular girls at school who seemed to be snearing at me all the time count as enemies? How about the teachers who kept insisting that I do my homework rather than just ace the test – were they my enemies? Was the dog who scared the ever-loving-crap out of me on my paper route an enemy? Enemy’s such a harsh word. Labeling those involved in low-level conflicts with me as enemies seemed awfully melodramatic – even for me.
Growing up in peacetime and as the child of parents who got along with the neighbors rather than starting Hatfield and MaCoy style fueds with them, enemies seemed in short supply. But I’ve always been a tad bit overly earnest, so I figured that in the absence of actual enemies, I would just try to do my best to love the assorted people who managed to hurt my feelings or otherwise bothered or irritated me.
Of course, life doesn’t often remain so simple and as I got older, I got the opportunity to try my hand at harder cases. The young women who called me racist in front of our dorm and the hall director who tried to get me fired for it, for example. (Unfortunately for their nefarious schemes against me, I began dating my African American husband right around that time. The righteous shall prevail – bwahahaha! . . . . Ahem.)
At that point loving my enemies mostly involved taking a sympathetic and empathetic view of them. Not holding a grudge. Not playing tit for tat and just taking the high road. Smiling rather than scowling at them and extending a helping hand when there was a need. That sort of thing. Which is all well and fine and the world would be a better, more enjoyable place if everyone did the same.
Then I encountered real enemies. And I realized that my previous loving enemies was child’s play. The people who I at some level considered enemies before didn’t have anything on this new breed of enemy. This sort of enemy was much more up-close and personal and much more vicious than anything I had ever encountered before. Because this sort of enemy didn’t come from the ranks of the other. This kind was found among those I already loved. When someone you love turns on you and becomes an enemy – that’s when you have a real enemy.
There’s a danger in talking about loving our enemies – particularly those enemies who are part of your intimate circle. Loving enemies can be used as an excuse for tolerating abuse. It can put the responsibility for maintaining peace or stability on someone who is being mistreated. People sometimes develop an unhealthy disregard for their own wellbeing in the name of loving an enemy. It can also become a cover for ignoring our own part in creating and perpetrating conflict; if I am loving and maybe even forgiving, I can ignore my own culpability in the conflict.
So allow me to say up front that loving your enemy should not involve allowing yourself to abused, harmed or co-dependant. Nor is it a substitute for dealing with your own part in a conflict. If you are in danger or being abused, get out. Remove yourself from the situation, even if it’s only temporarily. (For example, I began keeping my car keys on me so I could stand up and immediately leave when dealing with someone who had a habit of suddenly getting angry and yelling abusively at me. After a couple of times this person miraculously developed some self control.) Loving your enemies is not a call to submit to abuse.
But I also know that realistically we sometimes find ourselves in a situation where we don’t have much choice other than to deal with someone who is awful to us. Perhaps you get a boss who is out of control. Or it could be a parent, a child or spouse who has turned on you or is struggling with an addiction. Maybe you went and got thrown in prison and you’re surrounded by people who hate you. Whatever the reason, many of us will eventually find ourselves having to deal regularly with someone who is awful to us – our own real-life enemy. Who Jesus says we need to go love.
Now, there are all sorts of things you can and should do when dealing with this sort of situation. You may have to remove yourself from the situation. Get counseling for yourself or the person acting out, stage an intervention, find a new job, make a secret video recording and send it to the local media. (Kidding on that last one. Mostly.) Contrary to popular opinion, turning the other cheek isn’t necessarily a passive, shut-up and take it thing to do.
However, let’s say that you’ve done all that you can do and for whatever reason there’s no way for you to escape the person who has become your enemy. You find yourself in a situation where you are continually being bombarded with hostility, lies, condemnation criticism, blame and other sorts of nasty mind games. If that’s you, I have a secret to share: having an enemy like this is a special blessing. Of the upside down sort.
If you read through the spiritual biographies of Godly men and women, you will find that this sort of up-close, in your face enemy is a common experience among them. An abusive superior is shockingly common for those who were priests, monks or nuns. And repeatedly what they report is that in the end, that enemy was precious to them. Because it is through struggling to love someone who is absolutely impossible to love that the Christian soul is often refined and polished.
As I’ve mentioned before, the human version of love is more properly understood as affection. We love other people because of who they are. When someone is good, kind, giving, gentle, attractive, useful, then our affection for them grows and we call that love. When someone is bad, mean, selfish, harsh, ugly, useless, then we struggle to call up any affection for them and loving them can become impossible.
That sort of love/affection is fine, but it’s not the love we are called to as Christians. It’s not the kind which, as scriptures put it, never fails. The love that never fails – the sort of love which God has – works differently. Because real love doesn’t have anything to do with the person who is being loved. Real love is all about the person who is doing the loving. God loves because of who he is. And, being made in his image, that is how we are to love as well – out of who we are.
As awful as it is to find yourself facing an intimate, inescapable enemy, the reality is that there is no better tool available for learning to love as God loves.
Obviously, how to love this sort of enemy is a subject which could take up a book and there’s no way for me to cover it properly here. However, I’d like to offer a few general guidelines for making the most of this sort of, um, special blessing.
1. Depersonalize. This is both the hardest and the most important thing you can do when faced with an enemy like this. Those young women who were shouting for the world to hear that I was a racist didn’t actually know me. We had never been friends. What they were saying was a threat to me, but it wasn’t true, so it wasn’t too hard not to take it personally. But when someone who has been a friend or loved one turns on you, they know you. They will say things to you which have just enough truth in them to sting, get you on the defense and even make you doubt yourself. They will dredge up your past and re-write your history to call everything you’ve ever done into question. These sorts of enemies play dirty.
Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements in their own minds. ~ Miguel Ruiz
This is a very hard reality to accept. Especially if you are the sort of person who wants to take responsibility for yourself and be honest about your failings. It can feel very unnatural and even wrong to simply let very personal criticism and insults bounce off rather than taking them to heart so you can address them. What I have found is useful is to figure out why what the other person says is so upsetting to you. Why are you taking it personally? Because no one like to be insulted or lied about, yes. But like I said before, I didn’t take the accusations of racism personally because I knew that they were unfounded. More often than not, when you figure out why what the other person is saying or doing causes you so much pain, you will discover something in you which is wounded and needs healing, a false belief or fear which needs to be exorcised. Which, painful though it is, is to your benefit.
When an enemy’s words are like gas to the fire, one of the best ways to deal with it is to find the fire and put it out.
2. Let everything go. You cannot change another person. That’s a simple reality of life. Under normal circumstances you may be able to influence another person. But when someone close has turned against you, they will often refuse to be influenced. Nor will they accept any accountability or responsibility for what they do. When you try to get them to, they will simply find a way to make it all about you. (Remember – human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-justification!)
It could be that in the past you had some influence over the person you are dealing with. Once they’ve decided to shut themselves off from that, the only thing to do is to accept that you cannot change or influence them.
You have to let them go and accept that the way they are behaving is the way they are behaving. It’s not going to change unless they decide to change of their own free will.
3. Pray. The ability to love without conditions comes from God. You cannot do it seperate from God. If you are going to have any chance of loving your enemy and not being destroyed by your enemy, you will have to lean on and turn to God. Over and over and over. Develop the habit of asking God for help. (I have known many people who have begged God repeatedly to change or fix their enemy. But this rarely seems to work, ends up sowing emnity towards God and can destroy your faith. Perhaps the time will come when God will change your enemy, but for the time being, ask God to change you – not them.)
When you need to forgive, ask God for help. When you’ve been wounded, ask God for healing. When you need more patience, ask for patience. When you have been pushed to the point of hatred, ask God to help you love again.
A few times I’ve asked God for a break and circumstances appeared which did allow for a break. They weren’t often circumstances I liked, but they did give me a reprieve. God will give you what you need to endure and grow. But you will have to accept that it’s rarely going to look anything like how you’d like it to look. Part of dealing with an enemy and growing through it is not having much control.
You have to pray and maintain constant contact with God as you go through this process.
5. Confess. Confession isn’t so much about owning sin as it is about being honest. One of the best ways to end up damaged by your encounter with an enemy is to refuse to be honest. To refuse to acknowledge when you’ve been hurt. When you’re angry. When you feel that what is being asked of you is unfair. When you hate the other person.
We have this tendency to know what we’re supposed to do, think and feel and then try to conform to that. So we know that we ought to forgive and we try to will our way into forgiving. We’ll even lie to ourselves about having forgiven when the other person’s act still has a hold on us.
The real solution is to take our struggles to God and confess them – be honest about them. God knows how hard these things are and doesn’t hold our inability to do the things he asks us to do against us. He just wants us to be honest about our struggle and bring it to him to be dealt with.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that nothing will please God more than for you come to him in prayer and say, “this person has hurt me and just keeps hurting me. Would you please hit him with a bus for me? Or if you won’t could you please comfort me and take this anger from me?” That, God can work with.
Trying to force yourself to feel things you don’t really feel or pretend things aren’t as bad as they really are doesn’t work and is actually harmful. Just be honest.
A final note: so often I have heard people argue that we can change our enemies by loving them. Maybe. Sometimes. But don’t count on it. It could be that the person who has become your enemy will see the light and have a change of heart. But it could take much, much longer than is reasonable. If you’re waiting on that, you will lose heart. Remember: loving your enemy isn’t about your enemy at all. It’s about you. It’s about you being refined. It’s about you learning to live out of love and nothing else. It’s about you learning to rely on God’s love and nothing else. It’s a refiner’s fire, to be sure. But if you allow God to use your enemy for his own good purposes, the day will come when you will called your enemy your beloved whom you would not trade for anything but God himself.