“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48.)
In the text above, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. Our obedience should flow from God’s character. We love our enemies because God is perfect. This is the sum of what I want to share with you today.
But loving our enemies is a very hard command to follow. Let me suggest three levels of obedience that will help us understand this command and hopefully make it easier for everyone to “love their enemies.”
Here are three levels of obeying God’s command to love our enemies. One is the level of behavior. Two is the level of identity. Three is the level of motivation or spiritual surrender. Let me explain each level and show you how they relate to the act of loving our enemies. Towards the end, I will encourage everyone to pursue the third level. Now, let us go to the explanations.
The level of behavior is the first level where practicing our obedience is made observable by human standards. Anyone can see whether or not one is loving one’s enemies. Love is presented in action.
We are commanded to pray for those who abused us and bless those who cursed us. We are to offer our cheeks, our cloaks, our money to others without expecting any favors or returns. This is summarized in the verse; “Do to others as you would like them to do to you” (Luke 6:31 NLT). In other words, our outward actions reflect the love of God for all people.
The level of identity is the second level where the internal values of the Christian believer are identified. One’s identity is challenged. Jesus calls his followers to a life of goodness, a life different from that of the “sinners” of this world.
We are mandated to love others, do good to everyone, including our enemies, because we are different. The Gospel writer made the strong point that everyone practices good works—even sinners show love to their friends. But Christians are different. We not only love our friends, but also practice love for non-friends. We ought to bless those who cursed us and love our enemies. This is what separates us from other religious persons. This is our identity as a follower of Jesus.
Now, these two levels, the level of behavior and the level of identity, are sufficient ways of explaining the life of loving one’s enemies. However, if we do not move deeper into the third level, then our acts of obedience will still be difficult to practice and the command will continue to be hard to follow. So, let us proceed to the third level.
The level of surrender is the third level, the deepest level, where one submits his or her motivation to the being of God. In other words, a person surrenders to God all that he or she wants to do to love one’s enemies. One obeys because it brings him or her closer to God, and not just following ethical standards or human laws. One’s surrender is founded in the character of God. We are commanded to be perfect because God is perfect, and so we surrender in obedience.
This is a level of spirituality that is soaked in love—loving our neighbor as our selves, and loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, as stated in Matthew 22:37.
We are to love our enemies because we want to be like God, to practice mercy because He is the God of mercy. We love because God is love. Since, it is very hard for us to love our enemies, then we surrender ourselves to God, to His perfection, and let Him do His work in our lives. We ask Him to change our behavior, to strengthen our identity, and to deepen our surrender, deepen our obedience in a life of love. And so, we move to the deepest level, a life of surrender to our God.