A deadly problem is evident in society today. When someone hurts or threatens us, we want to retaliate with words or actions. Even a pastor who had been slighted told me he knew how to “get even.”
Is there an alternative to the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” mentality that contributes to a never-ending stream of violence around the world?
One of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, both to understand and to apply, is His alternative to getting even: “ ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ ” (Matt. 5:44).1 To appreciate our Lord’s command, let us consider the context of His saying, the command itself, the call implied, and the practical steps involved.
The context of the teaching
The admonition, “love your enemies,” appears in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). Here Jesus presents an alternative to the most common and frequent manner of dealing with one’s enemies. You will find the contrast evident in His words: “ ‘You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …’ ” (Matt. 5:43, 44).
During the time of Jesus, some sectors of Judaism held an animosity against people they did not like, such as the Samaritans, Romans, and Gentiles. Such an animosity created a relational rule of its own: “ ‘ “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” ’ ” (Matt. 5:43). Jesus corrected this and reminded them of the law that said, “ ‘ “Love your neighbor” ’ ” (Lev. 19:18), and reiterated this as His new commandment: “ ‘Love one another’ ” (John 13:34).
What about the words, “hate your enemy”? This command cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. But some people thought that if you loved your neighbor, the opposite feelings were appropriate for an enemy because the Old Testament law of retaliation (Lev. 24:19–21) seemed to sanction “getting even.” Josephus, the first century Jewish historian reports that the Essenes, a contemporary Jewish sect, had to swear to “hate the unjust.”2 Jesus was clearly distancing Himself from such thinking.
The command of Jesus
Jesus took the command “love your neighbor” to a new level when He said, “Love your enemies; return good for evil.”
Fred is not exactly my friend. He appeared one morning in my Bible study class with an angry attitude and critical questions. He left before class was over, slamming the door behind him. He was back for the evening service where he repeated this routine. For the next month or so, Fred was in and out of church, criticizing, condemning, feeling offended, and seeking apologies from pastors and parishioners alike.
It was easy for me to dislike Fred. He was a threat, a disruption to my ministry. The Greek word for “enemy” is echthros; literally, it means “hated [one].”3 An enemy is “hated” because of hostility and threat they bring into your life.
How was I to respond to Fred and others like him?
Jesus’ answer is simple but profound, “Replace your hatred with love.” In so saying, Jesus took reconciliation a step further: “Treat your enemy as your beloved friend.”
Fred passed out of my life as suddenly as he had appeared. But during the weeks that he invaded my comfort zone, God helped me show him kindness and compassion as a fellow human being whom God regards as precious.
The call to reflect the image of God
God has made us in His image (Gen. 1:26, 27) and called us to display God-likeness in the way we relate to our enemies. Jesus commanded, “ ‘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 causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ ” (Matt. 5:44, 45). These words suggest that when we love our enemies, we reflect the character of God. When we treat both our friends and enemies with grace and kindness, we are behaving much like our heavenly Father who is no respecter of persons when bestowing His blessings of sunshine and rain.
Jesus pointed out that when we love those who love us, we are not much different than unbelieving tax gatherers who do the same (Matt. 5:46). When we greet only those we consider “brothers,” how does that differ from the behavior of unbelieving Gentiles (Matt. 5:47)?
Jesus is calling His disciples to a different standard of behavior than that of the world. He sums up His point in Matthew 5:48, “ ‘Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ ” Jesus does not suggest that we may attain sinless perfection here on this earth. The word translated “perfect” literally means “having reached its end.”4 In this context, “perfect” refers to a complete or mature benevolence that we can extend toward our enemies as we follow the example of God.
Loving those who threaten and intimidate us remains a formidable challenge. But as God enables us to do so, we will reflect more accurately to an unbelieving and hostile world the goodness, grace, and patience of our heavenly Father. I am pleased to hear friends say that my son is just like me in the way he looks and behaves. And I am confident that God is pleased when people can see His character imaged in our lives.
Practical steps for disciples
The challenge was so overwhelming that the goal had never been achieved. Yet on the morning of May 29, 1953, Edmond Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, began their final assault to reach the summit of Mount Everest. And later that day, with oxygen tanks running low, the two climbers stood together on the 29,028 foot summit. Although extremely difficult, their objective was reached by many small steps.
What small steps might Christ’s followers take to start loving their enemies? Here are a few practical suggestions:
1. Don’t live in your hurts. People, sometimes, may repeatedly hurt us. Banking those hurts will make it harder to forgive. Peter was living his hurts when he said, “ ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ ” (Matt. 18:21). Jesus’ reply suggests that if you live harping on your hurts, you have not really forgiven (Matt. 18:22). Deal with each hurt through grace and forgiveness even when the offender fails to recognize or apologize for the damage done.
2. Do not reply in anger. Proverbs 15:1 reminds us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” If you want the situation to escalate, strike back with piercing words. But if you want to reflect your heavenly Father, surprise your enemy with kind and gentle words. You will find it very hard to be hostile towards someone who insists on being nice!
3. Be patient with annoying people. Like mosquitoes, some people persistently annoy us. But Paul provided the solution when he wrote, “Be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14).
4. Pray for those who hurt you. Jesus said, “ ‘Pray for those who persecute you’ ” (Matt. 5:44), and He did so Himself when He prayed for those who crucified Him (Luke 23:24). You will find it very hard to hate someone for whom you are praying!
5. Turn your enemy into a friend. Solomon said, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov. 16:7). Isaac demonstrated this attitude in his relationship with the troublesome Philistines (Gen. 26:27–31). A more recent example of turning enemies into friends comes from the life of Abraham Lincoln. When the Civil War ended, a group of angry southerners gained an audience with President Lincoln airing their complaints. His gentle, friendly manner soon thawed their icy hostility and left them with a new respect for their old foe. When a northern congressman insisted that Lincoln must destroy, not befriend his enemies, Lincoln smiled and replied, “Am I not destroying my enemies by making them my friends?”5
Accepting the challenge
Jake Sheehan might have been considered an enemy after he accidently shot Jared Borella, his best friend.6 Rhonda Borella sat by Jared’s bed at the hospital for three days and three nights while her son was fighting for his life. During those long hours she had the opportunity to reflect on what happened and find it within her to forgive.
When Jake went to visit his friend in the hospital, he was fearful and uncertain. But instead of hostility, he experienced genuine love and a profound forgiveness. Rhonda put her arms around Jake, and they entered Jared’s room together.
Godlike love is for everyone— friend and foe alike. Love has greater power to resolve conflicts than hatred and hostility! Surprise the next person who hurts you. Take the Jesus alternative to “getting even.” Replace the spirit of retaliation with Christlike love.
1. All Scripture passages in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, updated version.
2. The Jewish War II, 139.
3. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, eds. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 331.
4. G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual of Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark), 442.
5. Dallas Seminary Illustration File (Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1982).
6. “A single bullet shatters two boy’s lives,” The Oregonian, Monday, October 9, 2000, B-10.