There is no doubt that Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies. Moreover, there is no room for negotiation with Jesus on this point. No intelligent person can present a persuasive argument against taking his command seriously. Indeed, while we attempt to evade Jesus’ clear teaching by placing limitations on his command, specifically related to who we love and how much we love, these limitations cannot be accepted by those who seek to follow the teachings of Christ with great sincerity.
But we are all human, and there are times when all of us find it difficult to love others, especially our enemies. We must be honest with ourselves that this is a very difficult, if not an impossible thing to do. But if Jesus’ command is clear and non-negotiable, which will often result in our utter failure to be obedient, then why would he command us to do this? If it is difficult and often impossible for us to love our enemies, why would Jesus offer such a stringent command? Has Jesus only set us up to fail?
While loving one’s enemy is a difficult and often impossible struggle, viewing Jesus’ command as unattainable misses something deeply theological that is rooted in the heart of the gospel of grace. In our finite human existence, we believe that the strength to love others is found in ourselves and in our ability to muster up a forced love. We hear Jesus’ command, believe it to be true, but grit our teeth and force what is humanly impossible to do; love someone who has hurt us. But such a view of Jesus’ command will certainly lead us to fail.
The ability to love others, and especially our enemies, comes not from our own strength. Rather, we find the strength to love our enemies through the character and image of Christ that dwells in us. In other words, our love for others comes not from our human capacity to love. Our human capacity to love is limited and will lead us to fail. It is only through God’s empowering grace, given to us through God’s limitless love, that we find the power to love others, even our enemies. Our strength to love others can only be discovered in our identity in Christ.
This is the importance of the baptismal imagery we find in the New Testament. Through our baptism into Christ Jesus, we have become fundamentality transformed from the inside out, and our experience of this God empowered transformation has brought about a new identity in Christ, one whose foremost characteristic is love. Our love flows not from our natural existence as humans, but from our experience of God’s enabling grace and our existence as new creations in Christ.
This means that we do not love out of legalistic obedience to Jesus’ command. We are not called to muster up a forced love for others. Rather we love as a part of our participation in God’s love for the world. We bear the image of Christ to the world, and the image of Christ is love.
Thus, to express love toward others, particularly our enemies, is not simply a choice to love when we feel like loving. Loving our enemies as God has loved us, means that we act in love towards others as a way of being and living. Love is the fundamental character of God, and thus it is the fundamental characteristic of being a follower of Christ.
When Jesus speaks about loving our enemies, he speaks about a love that comes not from this world, but from God. Thus, the love that Christ teaches and shares with us is a revolutionary love that has the power to transform even the hardest of hearts. It is the kind of love that is alien to our world; but it is the kind of love that is, as Dr. Martin Luther King famously stated, “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
There are those who would argue that we cannot and should not love our enemies, whether on a personal or a global level. They argue that love will not change the relationship. But this argument is theologically short-sighted. For, if we believe that love is the prime characteristic of God, and that the love of God is powerful enough to change the world, and if we have embraced and now bear that love in our new identity in Christ, then we must believe that the love we share with others is the power through which God seeks to love and redeem all humanity, even our enemies.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.