“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).
This is an oft-quoted verse of Scripture. To many, it enunciates something unique about Christian social ethics.
Unfortunately, it’s generally quoted in a rather formulaic fashion, without bothering to seriously determine what it means or how it applies.
1.Jesus doesn’t define who one’s “enemy” is. Of course, the Bible has a lot to say about personal enemies as well as enemies of the faith. So we might use a common sense definition. At a minimum:
i) An enemy is someone who means you harm.
We might expand that a bit:
ii) An enemy is someone to tries to do you harm.
We might expand this a bit further:
iii) An enemy is someone who intends or attempts to do you harm for no good reason.
It’s more than just wishing someone ill. It’s also about acting on that animosity in some concrete fashion. More than just a hostile imagination. That’s clear from the business about “persecution.”
Moreover, to capture the invidious connotation of the word in Biblical usage, we need to distinguish between the just and unjust infliction of harm.
A policeman intends to harm a sniper. Yet it wouldn’t be fair to characterize the policeman is the “enemy.”
In context, this verse is talking about adversaries who are wronging a second party.
2.There’s a danger of turning a prayer for one’s enemy into a self-righteous exercise in personal justification. Such a prayer can actually be a pretext to malign the person we are ostensibly praying for, under the pretense of heartfelt concern for his immortal soul-and, by the same token, portraying ourselves as the innocent, injured party who in our saintly self-abasement is prepared to absorb the blow and intercede for this misguided soul.
If we ever have occasion to pray for a genuine enemy, we must guard against the snare of spiritual self-deception.
3.On a related note, there’s more to prayer than intoning the right verbal formulas. We need to mean it. And, of course, that can be a challenge if we’re praying for someone who’s gone out of his way to make us dislike him. How do we overcome dry or grudging prayers for personal enemies–assuming we have any?
i) It helps if we don’t obsess over this individual. It’s easier to pray for an enemy if you’re a generally happy person. For if your enemy puts you in a mad mood, then you’re in no mood to pray for him.
It helps to be in a good mood generally so that when we can bring that with us into our prayer closet (as it were).
I’m not saying that we should only pray for an enemy in case we happen to be in a good mood. Just that, if we’re in a bad mood, that makes it harder to truly care about the individual and avoid a perfunctory petition.
ii) The more seriously we take ourselves, the more seriously we resent injuries to our reputation or honor. Slights are magnified by a magnified sense of self-importance.
The less seriously we take ourselves, the more easily we can pray for those who defame us. So we should labor to lose ourselves in the goodness and the greatness of our God. Not only is that salutary for the walk of faith generally, but it also softens the blow.
iii) In addition, it helps to imagine what one’s enemy would be like in heaven. If he made it to heaven, what sort of person would he be at that point? Imagine what that person would be like if God made him all he was meant to be. Brought out the best rather than the worst.
iv) There are also situations in which a Christian is just a secondary target for God. The individual is going through you to attack God. He can’t harm God. God is out of reach.
So you’re the target of opportunity. It’s a case of transference.
At the same time, we have to tread very warily here, because this can also be a snare for self-justification. My own conduct is faultless. So all their antipathy must be directed at God!
Maybe–but not necessarily.
4.There’s also the question of what to ask for. What are we asking God to do in this situation?
I think the answer is related to what it means to love one’s enemies. And I don’t think that’s about affection, per se. Rather, it’s a case of acting, where possible, in their best interests–even if you don’t like them or feel much one way or the other.