“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:43-45
The natural man – the animal man – is in everyone resentful and disposed to violence. To the officer who struck the Lord with the palm of his hand the Lord, not resenting the violent act or condemning him, said: “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me?” The injuries, real or imaginary, done to one’s rights and interests strike deep with finite men and the selfish nature is instinctively aroused to anger and regards the one who inflicts the injury as an enemy and wishes him all manner of evil. So undying is this resentment that enmities and grudges are sometimes cherished for years in the hope that sometime there will be a chance to “get even.”
Such is the natural disposition of men toward their enemies. The last thing in the world, then, that they would think of doing would be to love their enemies. To be friendly and kind to an enemy seems an utter impossibility. Yet this is a duty. This doctrine of our Lord regarding enemies has seldom been exemplified among mankind at large, though there have been a few rare instances. Even among those who profess to be followers of the Lord there are not many who keep themselves so superior to selfish wrath as always to return good for evil, or who seriously regard the love of enemies as a practical duty of the Christian life. Yet this command given in the Sermon on the Mount is a prime essential to our own peace and to the peace of the world.
Let us not mistake the meaning of the Lord’s words. We are commanded to love our enemies, but we are not commanded to love the wrong that they have done us or to hide our condemnation of it. It is perfectly consistent in loving a person both to dislike and oppose his wrong deeds and to be concerned for his welfare. And we cannot do the latter if we do not do the former.
There are those who, lacking moral courage and wanting to avoid all conflict and disharmony, sacrifice their principles for the sake of keeping the peace. But the result is a spurious peace. Peace cannot be bought by compromise with evil. It is not this spirit that the Lord favors. Peace cannot be made by the non-resistance of moral cowardice. The Lord requires that we make no terms with evil, whether done to ourself or to another. Genuine love is always opposed to evil. Right must always be opposed to wrong, and good to evil. We cannot truly love anyone without condemnation of the evil.
“Love your enemies.” That which usually arouses our anger is not the wrongs someone has done to others but those he has done to us. There are, indeed, inhuman crimes by which great numbers of people are stirred to deepest indignation; yet if these do not affect them personally, it is strange how soon indifference sets in. This shows a lack of care for what is right and good in itself, and care only for one’s personal welfare.
It is fortunate that the civil law has taken this natural tendency into account in keeping from the individual citizen the right of punishment. It assumes that men generally will be so much under the control of personal feeling as to be incapable of doing justice when their own rights have been violated. But we should realize that there are those who go to the opposite extreme and by a false generosity favor a leniency by which they wrong both themselves and the offender. There are many who might have been checked in a career of crime if they had been made to suffer the consequences of their first misdeeds.
The teaching of our text is that all anger, all ill-will, all hostility should be put away, and that we should seek to do our enemies every possible good. For love seeks to bless all; it makes no distinction between friend and foe. We should wish good for all. Nothing less than this will fulfill our duty or be effective.
There is another condition which should be noted. Jeremiah writes, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” It is not enough to say, “I will not harm my enemy; I will treat him well; I would even help him if he were in distress; but I do not feel just right toward him, and I cannot forgive him.” It is not enough to say, “I will forgive, but I cannot forget.” Why can we not forget? We find no great difficulty in forgetting our own offenses. If we cannot put out of mind the offenses of others, it is a sign that deep down there is a grudge, perhaps hidden from our own sight, which is keeping the wrong fresh in mind. That is the reason why we remember it. Forgiveness will not be genuine until we can forget as well as forgive.
This is true for nations as well as for individuals. The Lord makes no exceptions. No matter how great the evil or fiendish the crime, we should not let ill-feelings stir in our souls. Men may smile at this as visionary and impossible, but it was spoken by Him who spake with the authority of Divine truth, and the wise and good of all ages will hear and obey.
How can we show our love for our enemies? First by our words. “Bless them that curse you.” When we have love, our words will be just the opposite of those of the evil. We read in Proverbs: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” If our enemies are abusive in their language, and bring against us charges that are unjust, and slander us, we should be kind and courteous, keeping the rule of the spirit; then they will slink away in defeat. The Lord gave us the example at His trial and crucifixion. He saw the ignorance of His accusers and said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Another way of showing love to our enemies is by acts of kindness. “Do good to them that hate you.” Love cannot stop with words. Therefore we should seek to do good to our enemies as we have opportunity. The opportunity may be limited. A man is not likely to seek favors from one whom he has injured or to whom he is hostile. But we can treat him kindly on all occasions, offer our services whenever we see them needed, and do whatever we can for his advantage. Then he will see that we are friendly and do not lay things up against him, and there may come a time when he will be glad of our assistance. Misfortune may have come upon him, or afflictions, in which he has no one to whom to turn. We shall then find delight in forgetting the past and going to his aid. Again it may happen that an enemy comes into our power. Such an opportunity was given to Joseph when his brethren, driven by famine into Egypt, stood before him whose blood they had sought, and he could have done unto them whatever he pleased. But he overlooked the wrongs they had done him, and gave them homes in the best of the land. How different this story would have been with an opposite ending! The Lord loves all men alike. There is no respect of persons, no distinction in His good will to men. He is kind even to the evil and unthankful.
One may be honorable in business, an obliging neighbor, kind to his family and to his acquaintances, and yet not be a Christian. “If ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?” We cannot say, “Forgive us our debts” without adding in sincerity “as we also forgive our debtors. This is the source of strength and of the control of evil.
Manliness does not consist in vehemence of desire or in violence of act, but in the control of such impulses. True manliness is in what is gentle and peaceful. It was the gentle manliness of the Lord which won for men salvation, which gives to men the irresistible power of truth from love for their protection from evil, which repays not injury with revenge, violence with more violence, but appeals to the tribunal of the truth, which alone has power to condemn wrong, which alone can vindicate the right.