Exploring the Biblical meaning of 'Loving Our Neighbors’

Chapter 8

Loving Our Enemies

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." - Martin Luther King, Jr.


"I hate you!"

"You’re stupid!"

"You liar!"

"You dirty imposter!"

"You (%#@*&)!"

The mentally disturbed young woman I was guarding cursed me every time I gave her a cup of water. I’d deliberately smile and say "thank you!" Finally she stopped vilifying me. The next day she cursed me again for several hours, then abruptly switched and acted as if we’d been best friends for years.

It was a small victory, but I appreciated it.


For most of us, few "neighbors" are bitter enemies. But it can happen, and leave hard-to-overcome scars.

One weekend my cousin disappeared.

Patty had been student-teaching in Grand Marais, Michigan, a small town on the south shore of Lake Superior without rail or bus service. Pat had no car, so when she visited her mother in Sault Ste. Marie, she hitched rides back and forth. That weekend, on the return trip, friends left her at a junction 25 miles from Grand Marais. But she never arrived.

Three days of intense search turned up one lead. An ex-convict on parole for armed robbery had been seen in a bar near where Pat’s friends had dropped her. That was a parole violation, so authorities searched for him. They found him eighty miles away, in Marquette, with blood in his car. He insisted he’d hit a deer and driven off with it.

The police persisted in questioning him. Finally he confessed. He’d picked Pat up, and attempted to molest her. She tried to defend herself with a large wrench from the car floor. He grabbed it away and killed her with it. He led officers to where he’d buried her in the woods.

When my relatives and I met at Pat’s funeral, we felt NO love! Fierce anger? Yes! Burning hatred? Definitely! We all agreed the police should let us give justice - by lynching him! They wouldn’t. But his trial returned him to prison for life.


Even in daily life, resentment, jealousy, misunderstanding, lies, or envy can easily slip between friends, neighbors, church members, or our families.

"The son despises his father; the daughter defies her mother; the bride curses her mother-in-law. Yes, a man’s enemies will be found in his own home" (Mic. 7:6, also Matt. 10:36).

The Psalmist knew enmity: "my enemies persecute with vigor and continue to hate me – though I have done nothing against them to deserve it. They repay me evil for good." (Ps. 38:19-20; also see Ps. 7:3-5; 28:3; 35:11-28; 50:12-20; 59:1-4; 62:3-4; 69:4; 109:1-5).

So did Jeremiah: "My enemies, whom I have never harmed, chased me as though I were a bird. They threw me in a well and capped it with a rock. The water flowed above my head. But I called upon your name, O Lord, from deep within the well, and you heard me! ... Yes, you came at my despairing cry and told me not to fear. ... You have heard the vile names they have called me ... O Lord, repay them well for all the evil they have done." (Lam. 3:52-64.)


We all meet people who make us appreciate Isaiah’s words: "We despised him and rejected him ... We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we didn’t care" (Isa. 53:3).

One pastor’s wife immediately loved our children, but just as instantly disliked my wife and me. She showed it with cutting comments every Sunday. We never learned why. We tried to love her and slowly win her over, but she never let us out of whatever pigeonhole she’d first put us in.

Anne Jackson said "the most painful experience of my life happened ... at a church ... Even years later ... I have to be careful not to let bitterness creep back in" (Mad Church Disease, 2009, p. 166).

Is it natural to love our enemies? No. Even animals instinctively defend themselves, waiting the time when "The wolf and lamb shall feed together" (Isa. 65:25).

We once watched a coyote stalk a small herd of 6-8 pronghorn antelope. He wove silently through the sagebrush, crouched down, trying to get near enough to attack. The herd knew he was there. When he got too close, one of the male antelope lowered his head, pointed his horns at the coyote, charged him, and drove him back. The pronghorns resumed grazing, the coyote approached again, and once more a male chased him away. We watched the cycle several times; then drove on, hoping the coyote found his dinner elsewhere.

Loving enemies is hard! Yet the Bible teaches us to love them.


What were some of the Bible’s earliest examples of "loving our enemies?"

"Joseph’s brothers were frightened.

"Now Joseph will pay us back for all the evil we did to him," they said.

"But Joseph told them, ‘Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, to judge and punish you? ... God turned into good what you meant for evil ... so that I could save the lives of many people ... And he spoke very kindly to them, reassuring them" (Gen. 50:15-21).


Moses taught the Israelites to love their enemies.

"If you come upon an enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, you must take it back to its owner. If you see your enemy trying to get his donkey onto its feet beneath a heavy load, you must not go on by but must help him" (Ex. 23:4-5).


As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses instructed them to offer their enemies peace:

"As you approach a city to fight against it, first offer it a truce. If it accepts the truce ... then all its people shall become your servants. But if it refuses and won’t make peace with you, you must besiege it" (Deut. 20:10-12; Josh 11:19-20).


Early in his reign, King Saul refused to punish his enemies:

"Then the people exclaimed to Samuel, ‘Where are those men who said that Saul shouldn’t be our king? Bring them here and we will kill them!’"

"But Saul replied, ‘No one will be executed today; for today the Lord has rescued Israel!’" (1 Sam. 10:27, 11:12-13.)


Where else does the Old Testament teach us to "love our enemies?"

"Do not rejoice when your enemy meets trouble. Let there be no gladness when he falls – for the Lord may be displeased with you and stop punishing him!" (Prov. 24:17-18.)

"Don’t testify spitefully against an innocent neighbor... Don’t say, ‘Now I can pay him back for all his meanness to me!’" (Prov. 24:28-29; also read Prov. 25:21-22; Job 31:29-30; Jer. 15:11.)

Jeremiah’s teachings were reminiscent of Jesus’.

"Let him turn the other cheek to those who strike him and accept their awful insults" (Lam. 3:30; also see Isa. 50:6; Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29).


In the Bible, who forgave his enemies most often?

After Jesus? David. Four stories portray him sparing enemies’ lives.

While trying to kill David, King Saul unknowingly entered a cave where his quarry was hiding. Instead of attacking, David silently cut off a piece of Saul’s robe.

As Saul left, David shouted to him, "The Lord placed you at my mercy ... but I spared you ... Doesn’t this convince you that I am not trying to harm you ... even though you have been hunting for my life?

"Saul called back, ‘Is it really you, my son David?’ He began crying, and said to David, ‘You are a better man than I am, for you have repaid me good for evil’" (1 Sam. 24:9-13; 24:16-17).


In 1 Sam. 26:1-25, Saul again tried to kill David. While Saul’s guards were asleep, David went into his camp with two men, took Saul’s spear and water jug, then taunted Saul’s guard from a safe distance.

"Saul ... said, ‘Is that you, my son David?’

"And David replied, ‘Yes, sir, it is. Why are you chasing me? What have I done? What is my crime?’

"Then Saul confessed, ‘I have done wrong. Come back home, my son, and I’ll no longer try to harm you; for you saved my life today.’"


In I Sam. 25:9-35 David vowed revenge.on Nabal. But Nabal’s wife Abigail appealed to David to make peace.

"David replied ... Bless you for keeping me from murdering the man and carrying out vengeance with my own hands ... "David accepted her gifts and told her ... he would not kill her husband."

Though Saul had been David’s enemy, David executed one man for claiming to have killed him (2 Sam. 1:1-16). Later he executed the men who killed Saul’s son Ish-bosheth (2 Sam. 4:5-12). Then "David began wondering if any of Saul’s family was still living, for he wanted to be kind to them." He returned Saul’s land to Saul’s crippled grandson, Mephibosheth, brought him to live in David’s own palace, and protected him (2 Sam. 9:1-13; 4:4; 16:1-4; 19:24-30; and 21:7).


But two other accounts that first look as if David forgave an enemy don’t end that way.

In 2 Sam. 16:5-13 Shimei cursed David. In 2 Sam. 19:15-23 Shimei apologized and pled for his life. David ordered him spared both times.

However, David neither forgave nor forgot. On his deathbed, David asked his son Solomon, who wasn’t bound by David’s promise, to see that Shimei was executed (1 Kings 2:8-9). Solomon did so (1 Kings 2:36-46).


Who loved an enemy army?

Elisha didn’t hide when the king of Syria tried to capture him. He prayed that God would let his frightened servant see God’s protecting army. "And the Lord opened that young man’s eyes, so that he could see horses of fire and chariots of fire everywhere upon the mountain!" (2 Kings 6:17.)

And Elisha didn’t even ask that angelic army for help!

"As the Syrian army advanced upon them, Elisha prayed, ‘Lord, please make them blind.’ And he did.

"Elisha...told them, ‘You’ve come the wrong way! ... Follow me and I will take you to the man you’re looking for.’ And he led them to Samaria!

"As soon as they arrived Elisha prayed, ‘Lord, now open their eyes ... And the Lord did, and they discovered that they were in Samaria, the capital city of Israel!

"When the king of Israel saw them, he shouted ... ‘Oh, sir, shall I kill them?

"‘Of course not!’ Elisha told him. ‘Do we kill prisoners of war? Give them food and drink and send them home again.’

"So the king made a great feast for them and then sent them home. And after that the Syrian raiders stayed away from the land of Israel" (2 Kings 6:18-23).


What did Jesus teach about loving those who hate us?

"Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for the happiness of those who curse you; implore God’s blessing on those who hurt you.

"If someone slaps you on one cheek, let him slap the other too! ... Do you think you deserve credit for merely loving those who love you? Even the godless do that! And if you do good only to those who do you good – is that so wonderful? Even sinners do that much! ... "Love your enemies! Do good to them! Lend to them! And don’t be concerned about the fact that they won’t repay. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as sons of God" (Luke 6:27-35; also Matt. 5:23-26; 5:43-48).


Who else in the New Testament told us to love our enemies?

Peter echoed Jesus’ teaching:

"Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t snap back at those who say unkind things about you. Instead, pray for God’s help for them, for we are to be kind to others, and God will bless us for it" (1 Pet. 3:9).

So did Paul (Rom. 12:14; 12:17-21; 2 Cor. 12:20; 1 Thess.5: 15).


What are some New Testament examples of loving our enemies?

"Father, forgive these people," Jesus said, "for they don’t know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr, forgave his persecutors.

"Then they ... dragged him out of the city to stone him. ... And as the murderous stones came hurtling at him, Stephen ... fell to his knees, shouting, ‘Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!’ and with that, he died" (Acts 7:57-60).

Ananias prayed for his mortal enemy, Paul, before he knew Paul had been converted. God told Ananias "Paul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the nations and before kings. And I will show him how much he must suffer for me" (Acts 9:15-16).

Paul did indeed suffer.

"To this very hour we have gone hungry and thirsty, without even enough clothes to keep us warm. We have been kicked around without homes of our own. We have worked wearily with our hands to earn our living. We have blessed those who cursed us. We have been patient with those who injured us. We have replied quietly when evil things have been said about us. Yet right up to the present moment we are like dirt underfoot, like garbage" (1 Cor. 4:11-13).

Paul urged the church to forgive a man he’d told them to ostracize:

"The man ... who caused all the trouble ... has been punished enough by your united disapproval. Now it is time to forgive him and comfort him. Otherwise he may become so bitter and discouraged that he won’t be able to recover. Please show him now that you still do love him very much" (2 Cor. 2:5-8).


Who are, and aren’t, our enemies?

Another country’s army may fight ours, but that doesn’t mean its civilians are our enemies.

"The armies from Israel also captured 200,000 Judean women and children and tremendous amounts of booty...

"But Oded, a prophet ... went out to meet the returning army.

"‘Look!’ he exclaimed. ‘The Lord ...was angry with Judah and let you capture them, but you have butchered them without mercy, and all heaven is disturbed. And now are you going to make slaves of these people? What about your own sins against the Lord your God? Listen to me and return these relatives of yours to their homes, for now the fierce anger of the Lord is upon you.’

"Some of the top leaders of Ephraim also added ... ‘You must not bring the captives here!’ ... ‘If you do, the Lord will be angry, and this sin will be added to our many others. We are in enough trouble with God as it is.’

"So the army officers turned over the captives and booty to the political leaders .... [who] distributed ... clothing to the women and children who needed it and gave them shoes, food, and wine, and put those who were sick and old on donkeys, and took them back to their families in Jericho, the City of Palm Trees" (2 Chron. 28:8-15).


How can we actually love our enemies?

It’s hard!

David Wilkerson was reminded of that during a rally for New York City gang members at St. Nicholas Arena:

"Nothing I said seemed real to these kids ... all I could sense was the growing restlessness of the crowd. I had reached the point in the sermon where I quoted Jesus’ command to love one another. Suddenly someone jumped up in the second row. He stood on his chair and shouted:

"Hold on, Preacher! Hold on! You say you want me to love them [xxx]? One of them cut me with a razor. I’ll love them all right – with a lead pipe."

"And another boy, this one from the Hell Burners’ section, jumped up and ripped open his shirt.

"I got a bullet hole here, Preacher. One of them [xxx] gangs did it. And you say we’re supposed to love them? Man, you’re not real."

"It didn’t sound real, not in that room so charged with hatred. It didn’t sound humanly possible. "It isn’t anything we can achieve through our own efforts," I admitted. "This is God’s love I’m talking about. We simply have to ask Him to give us His kind of love. We cannot work it up by ourselves." (Wilkerson, The Cross and the Switchblade, New York, Pillar Books, c1962, p. 78.)

Eighty of those gang members found that love that night.


Let the Holy Spirit’s love overflow.

It’s hard for us to even love God, let alone our enemies. But when God’s Holy Spirit enters, so does abundant love!

One night, while Yale University student Robert Morris was leading prayers at the Yale Christian Fellowship, he came to the line "We praise you, we adore you." Then he stopped short. In front of the entire group, he admitted "No, I don’t. I don’t know what it means to adore God."

Soon afterwards, Morris was one of many at Yale who found the overflowing love of the Holy Spirit. And that experience – which, for him, included "praying in tongues" – proved the key to genuinely loving God.

"For me," he said, "the gift of tongues turned out to be the gift of praise ... I felt rising in me the love, the awe, the adoration pure and uncontingent, that I had not been able to achieve in thought-out prayer ... praise which seems to flow out of unknown depths in a nonemotional but fully self-filling way." (John Sherrill, They Speak With Other Tongues, Chosen Books, 2004, p. 105-107.)

The morning after my own experience with the Holy Spirit, I overflowed with love, joy, and peace. And one lady who had been an "enemy" for years was conspicuous among the people I now loved. Not because she’d changed, or was more trustworthy, but simply because the Holy Spirit had touched me.

"But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23).

The Holy Spirit helps us love our enemies, sustains us in difficult situations, and can take unique forms.

At the end of one camping trip to North Carolina, our tent trailer refused to fold down. After struggling vainly to get it to cooperate, I towed it, still upright, to a local RV repairman’s home. We headed back to Orlando without it, facing an extra 1200-mile round trip later to pick it up.

I wasn’t happy. Not at all! But as I drove away from that rural shop, frustrated, muttering, and grumbling, my wife Yvonne suddenly burst out laughing - a free, unrestrained, joyful laugh. I asked her what was so funny. She said, "That wasn’t me! It was as if the Holy Spirit suddenly wanted to laugh through me!"

Through that surprising overflow of his Spirit, God seemed to tell me "Relax. It’s OK."

Ever since, God’s used that same gift of Spirit-filled laughter to give us love and patience with others; to assure us he’s in control of circumstances; and even to guide our choices.

More Scriptures: Eph. 5:18; 2 Tim. 1:7; James 3:17-18.


Loving God makes peace with many enemies.

"When a man is trying to please God, God makes even his worst enemies to be at peace with him" (Prov. 16:7; compare 2 Cor. 13:11).


God loved us when we were his enemies.

"We – every one of us – have strayed away like sheep! We, who left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet God laid on him the guilt and sins of every one of us!" (Isa. 53:6.)


Do we give love when our enemies expect hate?

"The godly pray for those who long to kill them" (Prov. 29:10).

"Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?" – Abraham Lincoln.


Do we work at it?

"Try to live in peace even if you must run after it to catch and hold it!" (1 Pet. 3:11; also read: Ps. 34:14; Matt. 5:9; 5:25-26; Mark 9:50; Heb. 12:14; 2 Pet. 3:14.)

Not every enemy will become a friend. Not all situations will yield to love. When they don’t, we’re to still love, forgive, and pray. God only requires us to do our best.



"If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies." – Moshe Dayan.
































































































































































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