“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.” –Matt. 5:43-47 (MSG)
So I’ve been trying to do something really radical lately.
I’m trying to love people I don’t like.
This is one of those strange paradoxes of the Christian life. We know, or at least we assent to the notion, that we’re called to love our enemies.
But if we’re honest, for most of us, all that really means is that we hold those with whom we’re in conflict at arms length, agreeing without words to stay out of each other’s space.
But that’s not love. That’s just polite avoidance.
By both his words and actions, Jesus provides an example for how to not only tolerate, but actively love those we deem unlovable.
Actively, as I was reminded by a friend in a recent conversation, is the key word here.
For me to love my enemy means more than just passively setting aside animosity. It means actively seeking his or her well-being. It means—more often than not—sacrificing my own wants and desires so that someone I disagree with, someone I strongly dislike, or even someone who means me harm, can actually benefit from my actions.
The more I try to love people I don’t like, the more I find out that it’s not just hard. It’s actually costly. It requires something of me, something sacrificial.
It requires that I examine my motives, confront often previously-unrecognized prejudices, and become vulnerable. After all, there’s no guarantee that it will be reciprocated.
I’m beginning to believe, though, that learning to love people we don’t like might be among the most important things we can do if we truly want to follow Jesus.
Let’s face it. Arguing, fighting, insulting, bullying, and belittling don’t work. If they did, the problems of the world would have been resolved long ago. No authentic relationship was ever built on coercion.
And yet, those things continue to be our default settings. When confronted with ideas we find disagreeable or offensive, or with people we find rude or ignorant or otherwise flawed in our eyes, we move instantly to criticism and condemnation.
What we fail to recognize is that, in doing so, we rob the other person of their very humanity. The moment we categorize someone as this type or that kind of individual, we have made him or her a thing and not a person. In our minds they are little more than an object to be sorted into our narrow definitions and classifications.
This, in fact, is at the heart of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. As he declares the outcasts and unlovable to be blessed, he reminds them of their humanity. A humanity of which the religious and social elite of their communities too often had robbed them because of their failure to live up to accepted norms and standards.
He reminds them that each human being is a creation of God, loved by God. Equal under sun and rain, in good times and bad, whether good or evil.
And he reminds them that loving one another—actively and unconditionally—is the most powerful thing they can do. In fact, it’s what opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven.
We’re good at loving people who look like us, think like us, act like us and talk like us. We’re good at loving those who share our beliefs and values and worldviews.
But when we come up against opposition, with people who look different, believe differently, behave differently, we turn instantly to condemnation.
Disagreement challenges us on a primal level. Feeling that we’re “right” about a particular viewpoint reinforces our sense of well-being and identity. When confronted with the notion that we might be wrong about something, we react defensively out of a need to protect that identity.
That’s why loving those we dislike is so costly. It requires that something within us—an opinion, a preference, a belief—must, in some fashion, die.
But what comes to life in its place is always something better and more beautiful.
And when our “enemies” experience that, and when others around us see it, it is a catalytic force for transformation and reconciliation.
So I’m going to keep trying to love people I don’t like.
I’ll fail. A lot.
But I hope by actively seeking the best for them, I’ll find the best in me.
And ultimately, in us.