Two Knights Fighting in a Landscape, Eugene Delacroix c. 1824
I need enemies. In fact, I’m not sure what it really means to love without them.
Jesus said the same thing. “Love your enemies. . . . If you love only those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt. 5:43–46).
Could it be that enemy love is the only real kind of love there is? Could it be that we need enemies to realize what kind of enemy we are? The apostle Paul writes, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). What is a sinner but an enemy of God? God’s love is the kind of love that targets enemies – including us.
Dale showed up one evening to a Bible study I was leading. He brought up some serious questions concerning my understanding of biblical social justice. I tried to answer him succinctly, and he appeared relatively satisfied. The next week Dale appeared again, this time with a couple of friends. Almost before I got started, the questions started flying. Then all hell broke loose. Dale began a diatribe against me, accusing me of teaching a false, humanistic gospel that reeked of socialism. I quickly went on the defensive and started to argue my case, point by point. We were getting nowhere fast. Boiling mad inside, I quickly ended our time together, and Dale left.
Could it be that enemy love is the only real kind of love there is? Could it be that we need enemies to realize what kind of enemy we are?
The next day, Dale gave me a call. He wanted to meet for lunch. Was this a setup? Would the ranting continue? I armed myself with every possible argument and line of defense. My theological guns were fully loaded and carefully aimed.
Dale began by apologizing for the disturbance he had made. Even though he still thought I was off my rocker, he felt bad for being so obnoxious. Then he shared about his past – how his father had been blown to bits in Vietnam, how his mother drank herself to death, how he managed to put himself through college on an ROTC scholarship, and how he proudly served in the Armed Forces. At one point in the conversation, his eyes welled up and he looked at me with a helpless, boyish expression. Then he said he had to go.
Dale never came back to Bible study. Although I haven’t seen him since, somehow he never left me. In fact, I have met many other “Dales” along the way. And one of them is myself. For in my encounter with Dale I realized that I am also broken, and in my brokenness I can agitate and threaten others. I realized how much I tended to barricade myself behind an “us against them” mentality, and in so doing, hindered God’s grace from doing its full work in my enemy and in myself.
For me, part of loving my enemy is to recognize the enemy that is inside me. For I am ultimately a man in revolt, an opponent of God’s unfathomable, unconditional love. Because of my own ego-driven existence, I am still at odds with myself and, too many times, with others. But this is why Jesus calls me to love my enemies. When I try, I not only see myself for who I am, but I discover the humanity and gift of those I’ve deemed “against me.” In reality, my enemy and I are one.
That realization is one of the reasons I live in Christian community. By surrounding myself closely with potential “enemies,” I can learn what real, unconditional love is all about. But by selectively distancing myself from others, living on my own terms and keeping my relational options open and fluid, I simply perpetuate the illusion that I really know how to love.
The New Testament commands us to forgive as we have been forgiven. This should compel us to move into the space of real enemy territory: the region where God’s forgiving love can do its work. Genuine love is not for weaklings, or for those what want to escape the world. No. In community we risk being hurt and hurting others. And yet, this is precisely the way in which we can draw close enough to each another so that God’s love can transform us.
We avoid community, and the enemies who come in its crucible, because we are afraid to let God change us. But perfect love casts out fear.
Enemy love is like fire. It burns the flesh, and consumes the offal hiding in the nooks and crannies of our denial – everything that opposes God. It is the purifying power of God’s forgiveness. But for such a fire to burn there must be fuel: the presence of others who are real enough to let their enemy selves be known and converted. We avoid community, and the enemies who come in its crucible, because we are afraid to let God change us. But perfect love casts out fear.
We will always have enemies. The question is, will we or will we not love them as God loves us? If we do, our enemies need not remain hostile opponents; they can even become our closest companions. Instead of avoiding our foes, let us step toward them in humility, and experience the wonder of what it means to find each other’s need and each other’s heart. Such love is a miracle – a miracle that God wants to give us if we would but embrace it. Thank God for enemies! With enemies, miracles can and do happen.