Loving our enemies means liking them, too

February 16, 2017

brunerAs I said in my sermon on Sunday (which I’ll post soon), when Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, talks about loving our enemies, he isn’t mostly talking about the Russians, the Chinese, or Islamic terrorists; he’s talking about the “enemy” who passes you on the street (or in the church hallway). As he implies in Matthew 5:47, our enemy is the one whom we “greet” (or fail to do so). Our enemy is someone we know personally, someone with whom we interact.

With this in mind, theologian Frederick Dale Bruner objects to a distinction that we Christians often make: that we can love enemies without liking them.

A frequent dodge must be noted. It is sometimes said that the agapē love commanded by Jesus is not erōs love; that agapē means “to wish well to” but it does not mean (as erōs does) “to feel affection for.” By this distinction some disciples allow themselves to continue heartily to dislike their enemies, to feel no affection for them at all, and yet by a kind of steel-cool Stoicism to believe that they are keeping Jesus’ Command.

While agapē is more than erōs, it is nothing less. For it is not true that erōs is a hot thing and agapē cold. We are not to be satisfied that we have kept Jesus agapē Command when we treat our enemies with semi-civility. We are to pray, and to pray some more, until we feel something of God’s love for problem people. (And before the holiness of God, are not all of us, even the best disciples, really problem people?) Granted, a miracle is required for agapē to happen, but God is good at miracles. Therefore, we must even beware of the sometimes good counsel that “you can love without liking,” if this should mean that we should block any liking or any natural affection at all. Disciples will permit God’s own powerful agapē so to forgive and affect them that they will actually find themselves with warm feelings, and not just steel wills, when they deal with enemies.[1]

Bruner goes on to say that agapē doesn’t mean we love “the enemies’ character or deeds or teachings or anything else about them; we are asked only to love the enemies themselves.[2]

But I like this a lot: We should have “warm feelings, and not just steel wills.” Notice also he refers to “feeling God’s love” for problem people.

Did you catch that? God feels love for problem people—including sinners like you and me. Are we sometimes tempted to imagine that God’s love for us is a matter of “steel will” rather than affection? What does it mean that God not only loves us (as if that’s what God were supposed to do, however reluctantly), but that God also likes us?

I could benefit from telling myself, “God likes you, Brent, in spite of your sin, in spite of your failures, in spite of your weaknesses.”

What about you?

As for loving our enemies, here’s a possible rule of thumb: we are not loving our enemies sufficiently until we have warm feelings for them. These warm feelings may take a miracle on God’s part, but as Bruner says, God is good at miracles. Start with prayer.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 271-2.

2. Ibid., 272.

4 Responses to “Loving our enemies means liking them, too”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This is really a “hard saying”! Part of me says, “That’s right,” whereas part of me says, “That can’t be right!” I think of Jesus’ reaction to the people he encountered. He seemed to have “warm feelings” toward his disciples and others, but very little but contempt for many “religious leaders.” Of course, He is God, and we are not, so He has the prerogative to act towards those who reject Him as being “reprobates” towards God, whereas we have no such prerogative as to those who oppose or reject us. But as to us, what about the verse that says do good, “thereby heaping coals of fire on their heads”! It seems to me that there is something “conditional” about love–offer it to all, but, ultimately, if not accepted, withdrawn. “Offer your peace to whatever town you come to, but if they reject you, then let your peace return to you. Shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” So, are we “required” to have “warm feelings” toward our enemies, or not? I guess I really don’t feel I have an “answer,” just “questions.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      The “heaping burning coals on their heads” part may be painful, but it’s still good for them—it’s still love. I don’t like the language that we often use of “tough love”—as if we have different ways of loving, and this is one way that we choose. No, it isn’t “tough love,” it’s love: this is the loving thing to do in this situation; to do anything else would be unloving or less than fully loving.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, I have heard this idea of burning coals being something helpful, but that is not my reading of it (or of a lot of other people’s). I think the idea is rather similar to that of, the more light someone receives, the more their punishment will be if it is rebuffed. “For to whom much is given, much will be required.” “Few stripes versus many stripes.” “Woe to you, cities I have visited, for cities of the past would have repented if I had gone there.” “Shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” “Woe to you, Jerusalem, who killed the prophets that I sent.” Etc. In my opinion, love is conditional that way. Certainly (or, in my opinion, at least) God ceases to love those who ultimately reject the sacrifice of his Son and the wooing of his Spirit. That’s why they go to hell, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and “agony in these flames.” Much as God would rather their having repented when they had the opportunity to do so. “Turn, turn, for why will you die, oh house of Israel.” Ezekiel 33.


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