The acid test of love is not whether we love our friends, but whether we love our enemies. A great Russian Saint asked, “How do we know whether a person abides in God and is sincere in his Christian faith? There is no other way of ascertaining this than by examining the person’s life to see if he loves his enemies. Where there is love for one’s enemy, there also is God.” That is the great test of whether we are in tune with God; for that is what God Himself does. He sends His rain on the just and the unjust. Chesterton said once, “Love means to love that which is unlovable, or it is no virtue at all.”
But to love our enemies in a world like ours seems highly impractical. To love your enemy — some object — is to allow him to take advantage of you. To love your enemy is to let him step all over you.
So we thought, until psychology and psychiatry came along and taught us a few things about hostility and hostile people. Specifically, they told us that a hostile person hates because he fears you will strike him; so, to protect himself, he strikes first. He is hostile because he expects vilification and hatred from you. The last thing he expects is love. So if, instead of hatred, you give him love, you will disarm him. Love is what he craves more than anything else. Love is the only thing that can destroy his hostility.
“Give him the devil!” said someone to a friend who had suffered an injustice at the hands of a third party. The reply he received was truly inspired, “He’s already got the devil. I’d like to give him God.” To love your enemy is to give him God.
But does God expect us to love the sin and the evil people do? Of course not. He expects us to hate the sin but to love the sinner. But isn’t this splitting hairs? How can one distinguish between the sin and the sinner? Yet we make this same distinction every day with ourselves. We do terrible things; we commit egregious errors. We hate the errors we commit, but we continue to love ourselves. Do the same with others, said Jesus. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Hate the sin; love the sinner. Someone expressed it this way, “To love one’s enemy does not mean to love the mud in which the pearl lies, but to love the pearl that lies in the mud.”
Why must I love my enemy? That I may be a child of the Father. “Love your enemies … and you will be sons of the Most High.” God wants me to be what He is. He loves His enemies. He does good to those who hate Him. He prepares green pastures for us when our just reward would be a desert. He leads us by still waters when we might have expected a land of drought. While we were yet sinners, God loved us and died for us. Shortly before He died Jesus told His disciples: “A new commandment I give unto you; that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”
“Love your enemies.” The man who makes your misery his policy, who dogs your steps, who sets snares for your feet, who twists your words, who is always pointing out the fly in the ointment, and who is never happier than when he is slowly dropping bitterness into your cup; your enemy, love him. Love him for My sake, says Jesus. Love him “even as I have loved you.” But love him also because your enemy is first of all an enemy to himself. The bitterness which he drops into your cup has, first of all, poisoned his own cup. Forget the superficial injury he inflicts on you and think of the fatal injury he is inflicting upon himself. On your part he creates bitterness; on his part he commits suicide.
As the great Russian priest Father John of Kronstadt writes in his inspiring book “The Life of Christ:” “Every person that does any evil, that gratifies any passion, is sufficiently punished by the evil he has committed, by the passions he serves, but chiefly by the fact that he withdraws himself from God, and God withdraws Himself from him: it would therefore be insane and most inhuman to nourish anger against such a man; it would be the same as to drown a sinking man, or push into the fire a person who is already being devoured by the flame. To such a man, as to one in danger of perishing, we must show double love, and pray fervently to God for him; not judging him, not rejoicing at his misfortune. For My sake, says Jesus, but for their sakes, too, ‘love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you.
We are to love people not because they are attractive but because they need love. The very fact that a person dislikes you may mean that he needs you. His soul is warped by his hatred of you, and you alone can warm him and free him. Ashley Montagu has written, “Show me a hardened criminal, a juvenile delinquent, a psychopath or a ‘cold fish’ and in almost every case I will show you a person resorting to desperate means in order to attract the emotional warmth and attention he failed to get but which he so much desires and needs. ‘Aggressive’ behavior when fully understood is, in fact, nothing but love frustrated, a technique for compelling love — as well as means for taking revenge on society which has let that person down, disillusioned, deserted and dehumanized him. Hence, the best way to approach aggressive behavior in children is not by further aggressive behavior towards them, but with love. And this is true not only for children but for human beings of all ages.”
Thus, two major reasons why we should love our enemies is first that they need love; and, second, love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
A third reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate. Only love can break the vicious circle. A man once bought a farm and was walking the bounds of his new property when he met his next door neighbor. “Don’t look now,” said the neighbor, “but when you bought this piece of ground, you also bought a lawsuit with me. Your fence is ten feet over on my land.”
Now this is a classic opening for a feud that could go on for centuries and create generations of enemies. But the new owner smiled and said, “I thought I’d find some friendly neighbors here, and I’m going to. And you’re going to help me. Move the fence where you want it, and send me the bill. You’ll be satisfied and I’ll be happy.”
Well, the fence was never moved, and the potential enemy was never the same again. He became a friendly neighbor. Love quenched the fire of hatred.
The ultimate reason why we should love our enemies is expressed in the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies … and you will be sons of the Most High.” We are all potential sons of God. Through love that potentiality becomes actuality. We must love our enemies because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of His holiness.
How is it possible to love one’s enemy?
1. It is not possible unless one first loves God. Jesus gave us the clue when He said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength and with all thy soul, and thy neighbor as thyself.” If you love God with your whole being, then you will love your neighbor, even though he be an enemy. Such love is a gift of the Holy Spirit abiding in us.
2. “Do good to them that hate you,” said Jesus. St. Paul says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink… . overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21). Do something good for your enemy and it will surprise you to find how much easier it will be to love him. It will help him remove the bitterness from his heart. But overcoming evil with good means that we must take the first step; we must begin by doing some kind act. “That enemy is best defeated who is defeated by kindness.”
A wise physician said once, “I have been practicing medicine for 30 years, and I have prescribed many things. But in the long run I have learned that for most of what ails the human creature, the best medicine is love.”
“What if it doesn’t work?” he was asked.
“Double the dose,” he replied.
3. Jesus says, “Pray for them who … persecute you.” Remember them on your knees. Name them quietly and kindly in the most secret place. Offer them the highest privilege it is in your power to grant — the privilege of being remembered when you are face to face with God. No person can pray for another and still hate him. One of the best ways of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate.
4. Look for some good in your enemy. There is good as well as bad in the worst of us. Fr. John of Kronstadt writes: “When your brother sins against you in any way — for instance, if he speaks ill of you, or transmits with an evil intention your words in a perverted form to another, or calumniates you — do not be angered against him, but seek to find in him those good qualities which undoubtedly exist in every man, and dwell lovingly on them, despising his evil calumnies concerning you as dross, not worth attention, as an illusion of the Devil. The gold-diggers do not pay any attention to the quantity of sand and dirt in the gold-dust, but only look for the grains of gold; and though they are few, they value this small quantity, and wash it out of heaps of useless sand. God acts in a like manner with us, cleansing us with great and long forbearance.”
5. Do good, pray, look for the good in your enemy, and finally develop the capacity to forgive. Without forgiveness it is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies. This forgiveness must begin with the one who has been wronged. Only the injured person can pour out the warm waters of forgiveness. Here is an example:
On April 9, 1968 — the day of Martin Luther King’s funeral — a white bus driver named Martin Whitted was pulled out of his bus in San Francisco by eleven black youths who savagely beat him and left him mortally wounded. He died shortly thereafter. Tension rose in the black and white communities. Rumors of violence began to spread. Then Dixie Whitted, the bus driver’s widow, appeared on television. Her reaction to her husband’s murder was something moving, something extraordinary, something not of this world. Quietly she spoke of her love for her husband and her faith in Christ. She told the people to refrain from violence, to be peacemakers instead. Through the power of Christ, she said, she had no bitterness or hate. She asked that a memorial fund be established not for herself but for all the young people in the area where her husband was killed.
The results of her compassionate act were electric. Cynical television crewmen cried. A Stanford coed called in to say that her whole life was changed by this Christian witness. A prisoner, who identified himself as a negro, wrote to Mrs. Whitted: “I owe you a debt. You have never known me but because of your way, your deep understanding, the beauty of your refusal to hate … I’ll never be able again to hate collectively all white men. What a monument you and your children are to your husband’s memory.”
“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”