Out of all of Jesus’ difficult teachings, this is one of the most difficult. It sounds very wonderful and noble in theory, and even non-followers of Jesus admire it. But in practice, it is one of the most difficult to carry out because it goes so contrary to our human nature. It’s nice to read about it, not so nice to have to do it.
“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)
One of the most challenging things about it is that Jesus doesn’t offer any exceptions. He doesn’t say, “Love your enemy unless he has done x, y, or z, then you don’t have to. It’s too much to ask.” He simply calls us to love everyone who has hurt us or done us wrong, no questions asked. Our love is to extend to the most practical manifestation, sharing our goods or allowing them to be taken away. It’s to go as far as doing to our enemies what we would like done to us.
This is so contrary to who we are as humans. Jesus says as much in v. 32-34. Our natural tendency is to form alliances in families and friendships of people who are like us, people who love us, people who treat us kindly, people we enjoy being around. If someone does us wrong, how do we react? We gossip and slander that person behind their back. We avoid them or cut them out of our lives. We may actively seek revenge or take an opportunity to harm them. We certainly don’t seek to do them good. What goes around comes around, an eye for an eye. Karma.
That’s the way the world works. Jesus is saying that’s not how it works in his kingdom. If you want to be a son or a daughter of the King, you have to live according to the principles of the kingdom. In his kingdom, kindness is extended even to the “ungrateful and the evil” or as it’s worded in the parallel passage in Matthew, “For he [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45). God’s kingdom is a place where mercy is the ruling principle, not justice.
You are to be like this because God is like this. If you are his child, you have to behave like your Father. God is good and merciful even to those who are evil and hate him. He loves a world that despises and rejects him. He went so far as to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life for his enemies.
Humanly speaking, it’s impossible. But we know Jesus gives us the grace to do the impossible. We are simply following in his footsteps. As he was being crucified, nailed to a wooden cross and suffering the most cruel and degrading death possible, he prayed for his tormentors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So how do we do this? I believe it’s recognizing that it’s an act of obedience to Jesus and choosing to do it, asking him for the grace. He will supply the ability to a heart that is willing to obey him.
It’s also intrinsically tied to forgiveness, which Jesus talks about elsewhere. It’s impossible to love someone against whom you hold a grudge. Bitterness will prevent you from feeling or doing anything for them. This is not about pretending, a mechanical outward effort to do something you know you are supposed to do but resent. It will involve working through issues of anger, resentment, and pain till you arrive at a place of forgiveness. It’s not about denying or ignoring the fact that you have been hurt. If you are moving toward obedience to Jesus, you will get there even if it takes time.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be best buddies with the person who harmed you. That may not be possible or desirable. It does mean you work through things in your heart until you can honestly wish them well, hold no resentment, and are able to pray for them, most importantly if they don’t know God, for their repentance. And if you have an opportunity to do them good, you take it.
It can be incredibly difficult, but it sets you free. Bitterness and resentment against those who have done you harm, perceived or real, keeps you locked in a prison that cripples you emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. The ability to love and forgive even the worst offences means you cannot be harmed. What can anyone do to you if you are free to love them? It takes time and we don’t get there all at once. It can be a struggle that has to be fought many times. But it sets you free in the end.
Phillip Yancey tells a powerful story of forgiveness in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace (chapter 8, Why Forgive?). A woman named Rebecca was married to a man who was addicted to porn and prostitutes. Eventually he left her for another woman. As can be expected, Rebecca went through months of incredible pain and anger. She realized she had to forgive for the sake of her children, but she couldn’t. Finally she came to a place where she was able to release her ex-husband to God. She called him and told him she forgave him and Julianne, the woman he’d left her for. He laughed her off.
A few years later, Rebecca got a hysterical phone call from Julianne. Her husband had been arrested for soliciting a prostitute. She thought back to the phone call Rebecca had made telling them she forgave them, and thought that perhaps Rebecca would be the one to understand. Because of the choice Rebecca had made years before, she was able to invite Julianne over and talk and pray with her. Julianne believes that she became a Christian that night.
There’s an interesting quote from Rebecca. She says: “For a long time, I had felt foolish about forgiving my husband. But that night I realized the fruit of forgiveness.” Forgiveness can feel extremely foolish, particularly when the person who betrayed us is unrepentant or doesn’t care. However, it releases us from pain, and it opens the door for God’s grace to work in that person’s life, perhaps even through us; or as in Rebecca’s case, the woman who’d been involved in her husband’s betrayal.
We may never see the fruit of forgiveness in the other person’s life. But we will in ours. And we will be like God, who continues loving even those who continue to reject him. We can leave the other person to him knowing that he will do what is just and right.