How Can I Love Someone Who Has Hurt Me?

[In] Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying, "you've heard it said under the old covenant, cleanse the land of all that defiles. Take up the sword, drive out all of my enemies and your enemies" because Israel was a nation. The church in the Old Testament was also a nation but the church now is not identified with any nation on Earth. It is a spiritual kingdom made up of people from every race and tribe and kindred, and tongue, and people (Rev. 5:9).

Jesus says that you're going to have persecution. Now he's not talking about defending your wife and family if you know somebody breaks it breaks in your house, you could still be a soldier like Cornelius, Cornelius became a believer a Christian and Peter never told him now you have to leave the Roman army, but you cannot defend the gospel by taking up arms, you have to endure persecution. How do we love our enemies, or the broader question, how do we love people who don't treat us well, more generally?  

One of the things with this is, it's so easy for us to justify not doing it. there's something deep down inside of us when somebody wrongs us you know we feel justified in lashing out, giving them the cold shoulder, cutting them off. They deserved it. A lot of times I found even in the church. Nobody will call us out on that. Oh, you'll say, Well, yeah, that person is you know that look at what they've done to you.

This is something that's so difficult for us this command that Jesus gives to us to love our enemies. I think of a sermon from Martin Luther King on loving enemies. It's really helpful. 

In the fifth chapter the Gospels recorded in Matthew, we'd read these very arresting words. Following the lips of our Lord and Master, “You’ve heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you love your enemies, bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that spitefully use you, that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven.” Certainly, these are great words. Words lifted to cosmic proportions and over the centuries many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command.

Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command. He wasn't playing. How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this, in order to love your enemies you must begin by analyzing yourself. Some people aren't going to like the way you walk. Some people aren't going to like the way you talk. Some people aren't going to like you because you can do your job better than they can. Some people aren't going to like you because your skin is a little brighter than theirs and others aren't going to like you because your skin is a little darker than theirs.

But after looking at these things and admitting these things. We must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something we've done, but it was that something that aroused the hate response within the individual. That’s why I say begin with yourself. there might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual and this is what Jesus means when he says how is it that you can see the moat in your brother's eye and not see the beam in your own and when you come to the point you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him the image of God, you begin to love him anyway. no matter what he does you acknowledge God's image there there's an element of goodness that he can never slough off and it comes from God. In the final analysis, Love is not this sentimental something we talk about. It's not merely an emotional something. Love is creative understanding goodwill for all men. It's the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love of its great beauty and power you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system you love but you seek to defeat the evil.

Dr. King then goes on to distinguish the different words for love in the Greek New Testament, but then “agape” he says,

It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love. It's what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. You begin to love people, not because they're likable but because God loves them.

You look at everyone and you love them because you know God loves them. And he might be the worst person you've ever seen. And I think this is what Jesus means in this very passage when he says love your enemy, it's significant. 

[Jesus] doesn't say ‘like’ your enemy. ‘Like’ is a sentimental something. There are a lot of people I find difficult to like, but Jesus says “love them.” Jesus teaches that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate. If I hit you and you hit me, and so on, you see, it just goes on ad infinitum…There's another reason why you should love your enemies, and it's because hate distorts the personality of the hater. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. It will only eat you up. It's pathological. But long before modern psychology came around, Jesus called us to love: ‘What good is it if you only love your friends, do not even the Gentiles do that?’ So, Jesus says “love,” because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.

One day as Napoleon came forward and said that at a very early age, he had all but conquered the world. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires, but upon what did they depend? They depended upon force. But long ago, Jesus started an empire that depended on love, and even to this day, millions will die for him. See, I can see Jesus walking around the hills and valleys of Palestine and I can see him looking out at the Roman Empire with all of their fascinating and intricate military machinery, but in the midst of that, I can hear him saying, "I will not use this method. Neither will I hate the Roman Empire." And all around the world this morning, we can hear the glad echo of heaven ring: “Jesus shall reign where err the sun does his successive journeys run, his kingdom spreads from shore to shore till moon shall wane and wax no more.” We can hear another chorus singing, “All hail the power of Jesus name.” We can hear another chorus singing, “Hallelujah, hallelujah. He's King of kings and Lord of lords. Hallelujah, hallelujah.” We can hear another choir singing, “In Christ, there is no east or west in him. No North or South, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world. This is the only way. 

There is a little tree planted on a little hill of Calvary, and on that tree hangs the most beautiful, most influential character whoever came into the world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it’s the telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way. So, this morning as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, I love you. I would rather die than hate you. And I'm foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love of Jesus Christ, somewhere men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. Then we will have from on high, the power to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to even decide to be good to those people who hate us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us. Oh God, let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.

Adapted from an answer given in Episode 118 of the Core Christianity Radio Show. 

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Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California.

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