By Vir Christi
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shocks His listeners by telling them, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). That statement is still just as shocking for us to hear today as it was for His listeners to hear back then. It seems counterintuitive. Why should we desire the ultimate good for those who desire nothing but our ruin?
Love Your Enemies…
Love is not an emotion. It is a movement of the will towards a perceived good. So when Jesus says “love your enemies”, He is not suggesting that you should run up to the people who desire you harm and try to give each one of them a big hug. What He means is that no matter what happens or how badly someone might want to cause you harm, you have to desire their good. And the ultimate good that a person can achieve is closeness with God.
Your spouse committed infidelity with someone who knew that they were married? You have to love that third person anyway. You were bullied in your youth to the point where you carried traumas into your adulthood that affect your ability to effectively cultivate adult relationships? You have to love that bully anyway, even though you carry the wounds still to this day.
“All right,” you might say to yourself, “I think I can manage to desire that every person draw closer to God.” But here is the thing. Every single one of us conceptually wants to be able to do that, but we all struggle with this more than we might think.
…And Pray for Those Who Persecute You
This love goes a step further than just abstractly desiring The Ultimate Good for someone. St. Paul tells us that love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). This means that if we want to love someone the way Jesus desires that we love them, we cannot stop at merely desiring their good. That means that whenever you hear news of an enemy of yours suffering or undergoing some misfortune, you cannot even allow yourself that sense of satisfaction at their fall!
One might challenge this by pointing to Psalm 58, in which the psalmist says, “The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done” (Psalm 58:10). This is not the rejoicing of someone’s enemy being destroyed, but rather that God’s justice has been brought about. The Bible is full of verses talking about how the end of all wickedness is the destruction of those who practice the ways of evil. God’s justice demands that this be the case. But there is a difference between rejoicing that God’s justice has been made manifest as opposed to desiring the destruction of a rival.
There are two clear examples to which we can look where Jesus sets the tone for us. The first is in His Passion, when Jesus is hanging from the Cross. The guards and the crowds have mocked Jesus, beaten Him, driven Him cruelly down the road to His own death bearing the weight of the instrument of His death, spat on Him, and laughed at Him. Our Lord would have been without clothing; while artistic renderings of the Crucifixion have a loincloth about Our Lord’s waist, in that time period victims were crucified without clothes so the last shred of their dignity was taken from them. All this hate directed at Jesus, who healed so many people and responded with love and generosity for three years. To God Himself! And what is the response Jesus gives, He who would have been most justified in desiring vengeance? “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
The second example is in our own lives. Jesus says, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters” (Luke 11:23). We know that whenever we sin, we set ourselves against the will of God. That means that every time we sin, we make ourselves God’s enemy. If that concept does not overwhelm and terrify us, we are in a very bad place spiritually. But this is where the example Jesus sets is so important. If the highest form of love is to desire that a person be drawn near to God, and Jesus loves us, then in the very worst of our sins—when we are an enemy of God—Jesus still wills that we be drawn closer to God. It holds the door open for us to be reconciled to God.
To Love Your Enemy is to Bring Them to Jesus
If one feels uncomfortable imagining being classified as “God’s enemy”, then one recognizes the significance of God’s forgiveness in the life of a person. Jesus sets those two great examples of mercy for us, from the Cross and from the confessional, to show us how we ought to encounter those who set their wills in opposition to ours.
What is the point of all that, you might be wondering. Warm fuzzies? Actually, this concept is essential to the conversion of the whole world; one will recall that Jesus sets this particular task before His disciples at the end of the Gospels of Matthew (Matthew 28:16-20) and Mark (Mark 16:14-18). To love one’s enemy, rather than the more natural hatred of one’s enemy, is such a radically different way to live that the shock of it would be—and has been—sufficient to bring so many souls closer to Christ.
Loving your enemies, lived out well, creates effective encounters with Christ in the lives of people who do not believe. Both St. Matthew and St. Luke recount the story of the woman who had had bleeding for twelve years. In St. Matthew’s account, she says to herself, “If I only touch His cloak, I will be made well” (Matthew 9:20-21). All souls in this world, whether they recognize the power of Christ or not, desire to be made whole. Even the tiniest brush with Jesus has extraordinary healing ability. Our radical forgiveness of our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us, is that healing ability. It is a tiny brush with Jesus that those people might never be aware of came from us, but is the first step to a road of healing that potentially is open before them!
Living out the Prayer
How do we live this? We begin by examining our hearts. Do we rejoice when someone who hates us, our friends, or our country dies, because we think them evil and they “got what they deserved?” Do we feel a grim little sense of satisfaction when we hear that an ex with whom we might have had a particularly vicious breakup seems like they are struggling to get into new relationships? Or maybe a feeling of smugness when that rival co-worker stumbles and falls, leaving the way open for you to get ahead of them? A small twinge of glee when that one sibling who seems to have it out for you gets in trouble for something that you yourself just avoided? If any of those, or anything like those, is a feeling that flashes across your heart with an enemy of yours, here is the uncomfortable reality: you have work to do. These thoughts, and the speech that stems from them, reveals a lot about the interior character of our hearts.
But do not fear! A good examination of our hearts helps us to understand why we react this way in the face of something bad happening to an adversary. It gives us clarity on where our wounds still are, how those wounds have affected us and our relationships with other people, and where our particular faults are concentrated. The root causes that lead us to feel the things described above are not sinful. They merely explain why we feel the way that we do. Once we understand the root causes, we open ourselves to the fullness of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Be brave. Do not merely confess those ugly internal responses that you have felt, but speak to the root causes of them as well. Confession is important not just because it heals us of our sins, but because it bares our soul and gives Jesus permission to heal us anywhere that we are broken. It can help you here.
With these two things done, be intentional in your prayer. Once a week, pick a person who has hurt you in the past or is hurting you now. Offer a prayer that God heal them from the wound that caused them to hurt you, or leads them to desire to hurt you. It can be as simple as a single Our Father or Hail Mary, and can be as in-depth as a Holy Hour or a Rosary. If you cannot think of any particular individual, pick someone who has caused great harm to your community or your country. All those mass shooters? Pray for them. Members of terrorist organizations? Pray for them. Violent abusers? Pray for them.
If some of the examples in the above paragraph make you uncomfortable, you are not trying to love as Jesus wants us to love. Your response might very well be, “But I’m not perfect!” Jesus challenges us, “Be perfect, therefore, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). That does not mean that Jesus expects us to be perfect right now this very second. But it does mean that He expects us to try.
He never promised us that this would be easy. He only promised us that it would be worth it.
Vir’s heart has been on fire for the Church from day one, and he dreams of the day when Constantinople will be a city again. He has a competitive drive satiated by sports and board games, but is also just as happy to sit down and read a good book for hours on end.