Love Your Enemies

Written by Steve Tinning

Every Christmas we celebrate that cosmic movement of love. “Love came down at Christmas” we sing (or used to). Acts of love are so stunningly precious – but acts of love for those who all too often don’t reciprocate or even acknowledge that love are quite extraordinary. It’s for this reason, at Christmas, I’m often drawn to think about one group of people often pushed to the margins of my mind as often as I am able. So, let me ask you a question…

Who are your enemies?

I imagine that’s a question that may provoke a lot of varying responses.

You may not be much of a reflector and you may have read those words without giving it a second thought – I’d encourage you to stop reading for a moment and consider your response.

For some a name (or names) would have appeared at the forefront of your mind before you’d even got to the “?”. For you, there may be a specific issue that’s caused division and pain between you and another.

Others might have to think a moment longer. Perhaps, with a faith that demands love of all, you find it hard to admit that you might have enemies. Or perhaps you prefer to conceptualise your enemy as a notion, like addiction or intolerance or anxiety? But those aren’t the enemies I’m thinking of today – I’m thinking of people.

I have an enemy. I probably have more than one, in fact I know I do. It’s a strange thing to admit to myself, especially on “paper”.

My enemies are all characterised by the classic enemy tropes. They’re hostile towards me – some more openly than others, they battle and challenge the values to which I hold most dear, they show no concern for me or my wellbeing, they don’t appear to value who I am or what I’m trying to do, and they make my life so difficult at times that I honestly don’t know how to respond.

Obviously, the calling Jesus has for each of us is to love our enemies (Matt 5:44). It’s a message that, when you’re not picturing someone’s face at the time, is truly inspirational – but honestly – there are days when I think, practically, it’s just not possible.

Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I get out on the right side of bed, I may have even had more than 5 hours sleep. My favourite Podcast has a new episode from which I can draw strength and my team actually won last night. On a day like that, I may be able to tolerate my enemy, smile as I walk past them, or even force myself to say or do something gracious. Most days, however, are not like that. It’s not that I live a life of open enmity, I’m far to conflict adverse for that, I just haven’t got the natural stamina to express love for my enemies 24/7 – achieving that kind of stamina requires exercise.

Below is a picture of my desk at church (and yes, I may have tidied it a little for the photo). But it’s not the desk I want you to focus on. It’s the piece of paper on the wall above my monitor. It’s a piece of paper that’s not moved from that spot for over 6 years. It’s a piece of paper I read out loud in the solitude of my office whenever I’m have a day when I didn’t get out the right side of bed, or sleep enough – or, let’s face it, when someone has just said or done something that has crushed my spirit a little. It’s a prayer – a prayer for my enemies.

A Computer on a Desktop

Because Jesus, of course, did not stop at “love your enemies” he also said, “and pray for those who persecute you.” I printed it off thinking, OK, well, if I’m struggling to tangibly love someone, I should, at least be able to pray for them – I am a minister after all. Having come across this prayer some years previously, I dug it out to ensure my prayers in these moments could push me beyond just what I wanted to say, to what I needed to say.

It’s a prayer you may have come across before, written by a man named, Nikolaj Velimirović. He was a Serbian bishop who spoke out against Nazi Germany and was subsequently taken to the concentration camp at Dachau to await his execution. His own people had betrayed him.

Black and white portrait photo of Nikolaj Velimirović
Nikolaj Velimirović

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.

Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world. They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself. They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments. They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself. They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance. Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish. Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a [fly].

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:

So that my fleeing will have no return; So that all my hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; So that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; So that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger;

So that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; Ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself. One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies. Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies. A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them. Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

I must have been deluded to think praying this prayer would be easy. I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve prayed it – and I still get a lump in my throat at, “Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me.” But the truth is, God uses this prayer to change me. By dwelling in the words of this prayer, God does transform my heart into the grave of these two evil twins: arrogance and anger. And without those twins controlling your spirit, you’d be amazing at how capable of love you become.

Who are your enemies?

Who are those who express such hostility towards you? Who battle against all the values you hold dear?

If you are finding loving them difficult, try prayer. After all prayer in itself is a transforming act of love. It may be that you have to start with lament – that raw, whole-body experience of exposing God to your deepest anger, disillusionment and despair, but my experience is that God rarely leaves us in that place for long. My hope is that you’ll soon be able to move into some edited version of this prayer for your enemies and before you know it God will transform your heart and in sincere acts of true love you might be able to speak and live these words…

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Steve Tinning is the Minister of Leigh Road Baptist Church and the Baptist Union’s Public Issues Enabler with the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT).

This post is part of an advent series. Twenty-Four diverse voices have been invited to share some thoughts on one of four themes (Hope, Peace, Joy and Love) each day during the season of Advent. Each contributor has been given just one theme and no further parameters – they may write as much or as little in the style of their own choosing.

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