When Jesus calls us to love our enemies, we might wonder what that really means in practice. Surely, we're not to get all warm and fuzzy when we think about those who seek to hurt us. That's our culture's view of romantic love, not the kind of robust, challenging love envisioned by Jesus, a love that is more about action than about feelings. But what sorts of action embody a love for our enemies?
Jesus gives several specific examples in Luke 6:27-36. In verse 28, for example, he says: "Bless those who curse you." To bless, in this instance, means to speak well of someone or to speak kindly to that person. Perhaps there is someone in your place of work who is spreading false rumors about you in order to advance above you. How will you respond? According to Jesus, not by retaliating. Rather, you are to love this "enemy" by speaking well of him, even when his back is turned. Or, when you see her, you should address her politely and graciously.
Jesus adds, "Pray for those who hurt you." There is nothing wrong with asking the Lord to get them to stay their hand. But praying for them involves asking good for them, seeking the Lord's presence in their lives and transformation of their hearts.
Prayer of this sort may sound easy enough in the abstract, but when you are really praying for real enemies, it can feel counterintuitive and even offensive. In the week following the attacks of 9/11/2001, Irvine Presbyterian Church joined thousands of other churches across our nation in hosting a special prayer service. We poured out our grief to the Lord. We asked him to comfort the families of those who had died. We prayed for firefighters and police officers, many who were risking their lives in the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
And we prayed for our enemies, for those who had planned the attacks and were no doubt plotting further harm to the United States. I was responsible for this particular prayer, and I labored over it for hours. What I wanted to say was, "Lord, wipe them out. Destroy them," but I sensed that this was not what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray for our enemies. So, I did pray that those who had planned the attacks would be brought to justice, knowing that is was consistent with God's will. But I also prayed that God would touch their hearts, bringing them to repentance. I asked that he would reveal his love and grace to them, so that their lives might be transformed.
As I prayed this way, I could sense the tension in the room. It was almost as if I had uttered profanity in my prayer. Nobody stormed out in anger. And, near as I can recall, nobody even sent me a nasty email. I did have a few people comment on my "bold prayer." For me, praying for our enemies that day was truly one of the hardest things I ever have had to do as a pastor. It was an act of sheer obedience.
I've said it before. Loving our enemies is not easy. Nor is it easy to bless them or to pray for them. But this is the way of Jesus.
Have you ever blessed someone who was speaking poorly of you? How did it feel? What happened inside of you when you did this? Have you ever prayed for those who hurt you? Are there people in your life right now who are seeking to harm you, for whom you need to pray? What keeps you from praying for your enemies? What helps you to do it?
Dear Lord, you know how hard it is to do what you ask in this verse. You know because you did it. You blessed those who cursed you, even as you suffered in agony on the cross. You asked the Father to forgive those who were torturing you to death.
And you ask me to imitate you in this behavior. I must confess that part of me just doesn't want to do this. I want to ignore your command, Lord. I want to pretend as if it's not really for me. Yet your word is clear.
Help me to bless those who curse me and pray for my enemies. Yes, I ask for the grace to pray for global enemies, for those who would continue to want to hurt me and my fellow citizens. But I also ask you to help me pray for the "little enemies" in my life, for people at work who get under my fingernails, for the politicians whose views drive me crazy, for the check-out clerk who didn't even say "thank you." May my heart be trained so that my first instinct when someone wrongs me is to lay that person before you in prayer.
Today, Lord, I also want to pray for my brothers and sisters who are confronting enemies who do far more than curse. I pray for those who are facing harassment, torture, and even the possibility of martyrdom because of their faith. Yes, I continue to pray for their deliverance, for justice and protection. But I also pray that you will give them the supernatural ability to love as you call us all to love, even to pray for those who hurt them.
I pray in the name of Jesus, who lived what he commanded. Amen.
Note: This reflection was originally published in 2011.