Sensible people agree that giving and receiving love is crucial to a person’s emotional wellbeing and his or her general prospering. Some people, even some who are not religious, even believe that loving your enemy is morally commendable and a pursuit-worthy. The Christian scriptures also affirm this point of view. So what is the Christian difference in loving one’s enemies? Is there a Christian difference? Let’s turn to Paul’s words in Romans 12 – specifically his words regarding how we are to treat our enemies – to find out.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them . . . . 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul commands us to bless those who persecute us. In a moment, I will suggest that the act of blessing is a specific way we are called to love. But an initial question confronts us: what makes someone a persecutor? In the Christian context, a persecutor is someone who purposely inflicts harm on a Christian precisely because of that person’s Christian identity. Who can be a persecutor? Virtually anyone: strangers, neighbors, employers and colleagues, family members, even fellow church members. What counts as harm? Bodily harm, harm to possessions, verbal harm, emotional harm, psychological harm, and legal harm – of varying degrees. It is the person who is inflicting harms of these kinds that Paul – not once, but twice – commands us to bless.
What does it mean to bless? In general, blessing in scripture is the bestowal of favor. To be blessed is to have things go well for you – morally, spiritually, materially, relationally, vocationally. So to bless someone, as John Piper puts it, is to act such that the recipient is “helped and strengthened and made better off than they were before.” The opposite – cursing – an act which Paul firmly forbids us from committing, is to seek a person’s disfavor, their misfortune, their ruin. Blessings can come from one human to another, and Paul no doubt has human-to-human blessing in view. But more often, and always ultimately, blessings come from the Lord. So, in blessing our enemies, we are to act for their wellbeing, to desire their prospering, both by our direct actions and by petitioning the Lord to come to their aid.
Excursus: calling down harm on one’s enemies?
Paul’s command not to curse seems to collide with the psalmists’ cries of cursing. But the two kinds of cursing are not the same. The basic distinction is this: “psalmist pro-cursing” is a godly desire to see divinely wrought justice enacted whereas “Pauline anti-cursing” is the ungodly wishing for or doing harm to another for the sake of oneself. The former is concerned with God’s honor, reputation and namesake; the latter for one’s own. The former is a cry for justice, for the Lord to restore honor to His name and to restore His reputation and cause among His people. The latter is the path of personal vengeance, seeking the restoration of our name and our reputation, for our sake. So the two kinds of cursing are not in conflict. With integrity we can pray for and desire justice and also pray for and desire the wellbeing and redemption of our enemies.
It should be clear that to bless is an act of love. But if that connection isn’t apparent, consider Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
What does it mean to love our enemies – to bless them as an act of love?
Love: two aspects
Full-bodied Christian love is comprised of two main parts: benevolence and affection. Let me offer a few words on each.
Benevolence. Benevolent love seeks the good of the other person – materially, physically, emotionally, and relationally. If our neighbor has a need, in love we are called to do what we can to meet it. If we say we love, but fail to provide – as opportunity and ability allow – haven’t we failed to love at the most basic level? According to Jesus, we must love our enemy in the same way we are to love our neighbor. We are to desire their flourishing and do what we can to promote it – which includes treating them honorably and with dignity; speaking kindly of them and to them, with gentleness and respect (Rom 12:17, I Peter 3:15). The greatest need our enemy has, of course, is to be reconciled with God and renewed in Christ’s likeness by the Holy Spirit. And so we must pray; we must pray for our enemy that he would know loving fellowship with the Lord himself. Doing good to our enemies is good, but it can be done half-heartedly. Whole love requires more: it demands that we feel a certain way about our enemies.
Affection. Each of us has experienced friendships where feelings of mutual fondness, care, and endearing tenderness have receded for one reason or another. Such relationships lack luster, even when you and your friend continue to cooperate with each other and meet other basic needs. Relationships suffer when affection is diminished. So when Paul urges, “let your love be genuine”, he is sounding a different note. Genuine love has emotional content of a certain kind. Such love should not only act a certain way, but it should feel a certain way towards its object. Now I am not supposing that when you or a loved one are mistreated for the sake of the gospel there isn’t a rightful place for feelings of grief, or sadness, or even righteous, “psalmist pro-cursing” anger. But to love your enemy while resenting him is a contradiction, and scripture forbids such feelings. Genuine love is a feeling love. In the case of our emotional attitude toward those who oppose us, we are to feel kindness, compassion, and empathy; but, more than that, we should also aspire to caring, endearing tenderness toward them, not unlike the care and tenderheartedness we feel toward our dearest friends.
Excursus: why are we to love those who do us harm?
Jesus gives the answer: because our heavenly Father does good to those who oppose him, and His example is for us to emulate.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Why does God do good to the evil, to the unjust? Because it is His character to be merciful and kind. To be sure, God is also just and holy and will judge and punish the resolutely impenitent in the eschaton. But, in the present life, he is also indiscriminately kind. He provides for the basic needs of even those who loathe Him; He enables unbelievers, from the most wicked to the most humane, to flourish to a degree. He is merciful in this life even to those he has not elected to eternal life. And as His sons, we are called to be like our Father, to be merciful and kind to the unjust and to those who do harm to us.
Overcoming evil. Naturally, a love that is benevolent and affectionate excludes vengeance-taking, taking justice into our own hands (Romans 12:17, 19) – whether by physical tit-for-tat or by an attitude of ungodly spite. We are forbidden from avenging ourselves or retaliating to any degree or for any reason, not because we lack just cause, but because we are called to leave judgment – wrath – to God. And what a pleasant prohibition it is. Obeying the command has the happy consequence of freeing us from mulling revenge or plotting revenge or exacting revenge. We need not worry about settling accounts, because justice is in the Lord’s hands. Released from this burden, we can get on with befriending and caring for our persecutors, which can often take a very practical bent: meeting their physical needs, for example (Rom 12:20). As for the meaning of the phrase – “heap burning coals upon his head” – commentators are divided, but I lean toward the notion that our enemies will perchance feel shame and guilt by our do-gooding, a shame and guilt that may lead to their repentance (cf. I Peter 3:16).
“Do not be overcome by evil,” Paul continues. I take it that what Paul is forbidding is the inhabiting, nursing even, in our hearts of any and all evil desires, thoughts, attitudes, and feelings toward our wrong-doer. How can we avoid being overcome? More, much more, could be said, but consider that your enemy bears God’s image and is being treated with genuine kindness and dignity by the Lord himself. Such thoughts should move us to compassionate treatment rather than spite, which is what Paul seems to have in mind in the second clause, “but overcome evil with good.” How does one overcome evil? Rather than sketch an answer, I offer the following real-life example.
Just over a year ago, family members of the victims of the Charleston shootings addressed the perpetrator.
Said one: “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you.”
And another: “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent, repent … give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it and change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you’ll be OK.”
And another: "May God have mercy on you. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I'll never be the same. We enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you."
We do not know the perpetrator’s eternal fate. But through the testimony of our brothers and sisters in Christ we witness Christian forgiveness and kindness. In their acts, good overcame evil.
Followers of Jesus Christ are to bless their persecutors, and we are to do it for the Lord’s sake – that’s the Christian difference, or at least a significant part of it. We must not dilute this command. To love our enemy means we are to feel about them and act toward them the same way we feel about and act toward our friends. We are to leave final justice to the Lord, freeing us to do good to those who do us harm, to care for them, and to pray for them. This, I suggest, is the love challenge. Thanks be to our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – through whom, in whom, and by whom we are enabled to live for His name’s sake.
Mr. Geoff Sackett
Dean of Students
Guest Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.