This is why many non-believers have seen Christians as hypocrites – teaching this principle in theory but ignoring it in practice. In all honesty, many of us might see ourselves in this criticism leveled by the eighteenth-century political philosopher of the American Revolution Thomas Paine: “Those who preach this doctrine of loving their enemies, are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing; for the doctrine is hypocritical, and it is natural that hypocrisy should act the reverse of what it preaches.” (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason).
In the Old TestamentThe Scriptures are full of imprecations against the enemies of Israel. The Torah and the early histories of Israel encourage believing Jews to consider the pagans living in their midst as God’s enemies and, therefore, their own. If they encourage readers to treat their enemies with compassion, it is for a motive other than kindness. The author of Proverbs warns his readers, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn His wrath away from them” (Prov 24:17, 18). In other words, don’t rejoice over your enemy’s misfortune or God will restore their good fortune to spite you!
In Proverbs we find another word of advice on dealing with one’s enemies which was apparently well regarded among first-century Jews: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21, 22). The author encourages the doing of good from a base motive – Treat your enemy kindly. You will make him feel guilty and God will bless you in the bargain! This is very far from the New Testament teaching and shows us how far from conventional wisdom, even among God’s People, Christ’s doctrine is.
Imitating GodChrist regularly encouraged His disciples to imitate God’s way rather than man’s. God’s way is, of course, the way of mercy and compassion. God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities, For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him” (Psalms 103:10, 11). While the Jews were long encouraged to trust in God’s mercy, it was Christ who taught us to imitate that compassion in the way we treat others.
The Lord Jesus urged His disciples to strive for perfection in their spiritual lives and He pointed to love for one’s enemies as exemplifying that perfection. Anything less, He identified with the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees. In St Matthew’s Gospel the following injunction concludes and sums up the Sermon on the Mount: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful… You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:32-36, 43-48). If the aim of the Christian life is to imitate the Lover of Mankind, the chief sign of that way of life is the way we treat our enemies. We can and should act in the image of God.
Perhaps the most striking example of love for ones enemies in the Gospels is the prayer for His killers which Christ offered while hanging on the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24). Arrested for preaching in Christ’s name some years later, the first martyr, St Stephen, used his last breath to imitate Christ’s love for His enemies, praying: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60) as he was being stoned by his killers: God, and those who follow His way, do not let themselves be conditioned by the wickedness of others. Even when forgotten or rejected, they continue to be faithful to loving others.
Forgiving through the Holy SpiritImitating God in this way isn’t easy. Some say it isn’t even in our power, but is an attitude that can only be the fruit of grace, given by the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Silouan the Athonite writes, “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.”
The ability to love one’s enemies is also closely bound to humility. Almost all the difficulties we encounter in loving our enemies are linked with pride: it is from pride that flows the affliction that follows upon insults, hated, bad temper, spite, the desire for revenge, contempt for one’s neighbor, refusing to forgive him and to be reconciled with him. Pride excludes the love of enemies and love for one’s enemies excludes pride.
When we think of asceticism, we may consider prayer vigils, fasting, or making numerous prostrations. The most challenging ascetical feat, however, is to practice love for one’s enemies.
St Silouan the Athonite on Loving Our Enemies“He who has not learned to love from the Holy Spirit, will certainly not pray for his enemies.”
“Lord, teach us through Your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears . . . Lord, as You prayed for Your enemies, so teach us also, through the Holy Spirit, to love our enemies.”