Dear Father Joe: How Much Do I Have to Love My Enemies?
Dear Father Joe, What does it actually mean to love my enemies? How do I do that?
I’m so glad you asked this question; it’s one that is always timely, in my opinion. So, let’s get right to it.
First, let’s look at who our enemies are.
Not everyone who disagrees with you is your enemy. Not everyone who believes something different than you is your enemy. Not everyone who doesn’t like you is your enemy.
I worry at times that we’ve become so wrapped up in our opinions and ideas that we’ve come to tie them to our identity. When this happens, any time someone disagrees with us, we get wildly angry because we’ve lost track of the fact that they are disagreeing with us, not attacking our value or worth.
I also tend to worry that we’ve allowed ourselves to become very useful tools of political parties. Politicians spend a lot of time and money fighting each other and trying to get us to fight for them. They convince us that “the other people” are the enemy. I have friends whom I completely disagree with on politics and I believe with all my heart that they love our country and want it to be a better place: We simply disagree on how it should be accomplished. I urge us all to take some time and consider whether we let people who don’t care about us convince us to hate those who do.
An enemy is someone who wishes to harm us. An enemy is someone who doesn’t care about or honor our God-given dignity. An enemy is someone who acts intentionally against us.
So, we have a sense of who our enemies are, let’s get into ideas and actions that will help us love them.
To love our enemies does not mean we are their friends. It does not mean that we are to continue to put ourselves in a position to get hurt. That’s important to remember. Forgiveness does not necessarily involve reconciliation with the party who has wounded us. Forgiveness requires you and God; reconciliation with the person requires them, God and you.
As hard as we try to be virtuous, just and kind, we may be surprised to find that people consider us an enemy. There are people walking around right now carrying hurt in their hearts over something we have said or done; the moment we forget that, we can get ourselves in some trouble. I have taken time in prayer to thank God for the people I have hurt who have forgiven me without me even knowing.
In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”
When we are called to love our enemies, we need to put aside the idea that this love is somehow tied to our feelings. Our feelings are feral things — they come and they go and we have little control over them. For the most part, we can’t “make” ourselves feel anything. Instead of going by whether we feel love for our enemies, we need to focus on what we do.
To love our enemies, we simply have to be praying for them. We should pray that God heals whatever is broken in them and that he draws them closer to himself. We should pray that God forgives them and helps us to forgive them as well.
We need to do what is good when it comes to those who are our enemies. In other words, we need to avoid acts of vengeance or behavior that would harm them. This can be tough — so again, pray hard for the strength to do the good.
If our enemy is someone whose presence is bad for us — for example, someone whose behavior is abusive — we do not need to spend time with them. Forgiveness is not reconciliation; love is not necessarily relationship. We pray for them and leave their brokenness to God to heal.
Remember most of all, that your enemy is also a beloved child of God and only God can see him or her clearly. In the same way, God sees you perfectly — faults and all — and still loves you unconditionally. Don’t forget that unconditional love is freely given to your enemy as well.
When it comes down to it, even your enemy is your brother or sister in Christ. So pray for them, and wish them well.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!