Let’s start off by thinking about someone in our life who is hurting us or causing us problems. (If that person’s next to you, don’t look over.) Maybe enemy is too strong a word, but this person causes us pain or makes us mad. Question: How often do we have kind thoughts about these people? It seems to me that we often think about their faults, how they’re messing up our lives; we criticize, maybe even condemn them in our hearts.
Jesus just commanded us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Why? Because our Father in heaven “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:44-45). It’s very simple: God loves and continues to do good to all who hate Him. And if we’re His sons and daughters, then we have to do the same.
Now, what does loving our enemies not mean?
1) It doesn’t mean condoning the wrong they do to us. If someone, for instance, swears at, insults or abuses us, then it’s wrong and we must call it wrong. We must love the sinner and hate the sin. We treat them well, but hate what they’ve done.
2) Loving our enemies doesn’t mean being a doormat: letting ourselves be taken advantage of, allowing someone to destroy good work, or, in extreme cases, staying with someone who abuses us. We are allowed to protect ourselves (e.g. staying away from a bully). Church law says, speaking of married couples, if there’s “grave mental or physical danger” that’s a legitimate reason to separate (this is not divorce, but separation) (CIC 1153). Nevertheless, if there’s separation, there still has to be love and forgiveness.
3) Loving our enemies doesn’t mean having good feelings towards them. We can’t always control our feelings, and perhaps there’s no reason to feel good towards them, but, love isn’t a feeling, but a… choice. Love means “I desire what is good for the other person.”
I’d like to suggest two steps to loving our enemies. First, don’t retaliate, or, as the Bible says, “Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult” (1 Pt 3:9, NAB).
I mentioned last Good Friday how The Lord of the Rings was written by a devout Catholic named J.R.R. Tolkien, who said, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” In the story, three main characters are tempted to hate their enemy, Gollum. In one scene, Frodo says to Gandolf: “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.” Gandolf responds, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand.” Later, Frodo has a chance to kill him, but doesn’t; and says, “Now that I do see him, I do pity him.” Later, Sam has a chance to, but pities him.
On three separate occasions, three hobbits were tempted to hate their enemy. The hardest commandment Jesus gives us is to love our enemy. But they passed the test. If they had failed and killed Gollum, he wouldn’t have been there at the end of the story to help destroy the ring. His presence at the end was a reward for their previous virtue.
We’re all tempted to retaliate—please don’t. It’s a test of virtue, a test of our love, and a test of being true Christians.
The first step is to avoid doing evil. The second step is Jesus’ call to do good. And it starts with prayer.
When Jesus was on the Cross, He prayed for those who hated Him. You can imagine the pain He felt when they drove nails through His wrists and feet. Yet He prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Sometimes we may feel like people are driving nails through our hands and feet, but this kind of prayer is what we’re called to.
St. Thomas More was a husband and father, but, because he objected to King Henry VIII’s divorce and remarriage, was thrown in prison and lost everything. He composed a beautiful prayer that you have in your pews. Don’t mind the old English because it teaches us how to pray:
“Almighty God, have mercy on N. and on all that bear me evil will and would me harm, and on their faults and mine together, by such easy, tender, merciful means, as thine infinite wisdom best can devise; vouchsafe to amend and redress and make us saved souls in heaven together, where we may ever live and love together with thee and thy blessed saints, O glorious Trinity, for the bitter passion of our sweet Savior Christ. Amen.”
Notice how he puts himself and his enemies together in one group, because he recognizes that they both have faults. And then he prays that God brings him and his enemies to heaven, so that together they can praise God forever—that’s challenging and beautiful.
A much simpler prayer is on the back of the card:
“Father, You make the sun rise on the evil and on the good. Please heal the hurt I have experienced. Bless and take care of those who hurt me. Stop the evil things they do. Bring them closer to You and grant their conversion. As Jesus did on the Cross, I choose to love those who do not love me. When I struggle to do so, give me more grace. May our Mother, who forgave those who crucified her Son, pray for all of us.”
The first petition here asks for our healing, because we’re often so hurt we can’t move beyond it. So we pray for our healing in order that we may pray for our enemies. It takes time to heal wounds, so it may also take time to pray this prayer from the heart. If we find that we start this prayer and get stuck at this first petition, then we don’t have to go any further; God wants us to keep on praying for healing.
As you know, priests offer up Mass for different intentions (e.g. for a family, for an individual, or for someone who has died). Yesterday, I offered Mass for all of our enemies and those who have hurt all of us. I think it would be beautiful to see some Mass intentions in the bulletin that say “for our enemies” (but don’t mention the name of the person). Today, we’ll be using the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation II, which has beautiful prayers about these themes.
Loving our enemies is the Christian thing to do. And sometimes it can change our enemy’s heart.
A woman named Ann once ran into her counsellor while at a park and right after greeting him, asked him a deep, personal question: “Dr. Chapman, is it possible to love someone whom you hate?” referring to her husband, Glenn. Ann was going for counselling but Glenn wasn’t interested. After ten years together, her love for him had been killed by years of criticism and condemnation, and her emotional energy and self-esteem almost destroyed.
When she met Dr. Chapman a week later, he listened kindly and was sympathetic, and said whatever advice he would give would cause deep pain. He slowly read to her Jesus’ words that we heard today: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:27-28). Then he suggested she do an experiment. If she could love Glenn in a way he understood and appreciated (his love language) for six months, his emotional need for love would be met and then he’d likely start reciprocating.
There was no way to be sure this would bear fruit, but it was quite possible. Because Ann’s deepest desire was to save her relationship, for her and Glenn to love each other again and express it, she decided to do it.
The plan was this: She’d go home and say to Glenn, “I’ve been thinking about us and I’ve decided that I would like to be a better wife to you. So if you have any suggestions as to how I could be a better wife, I want you to know that I am open to them. You can tell me now or you can think about it and let me know what you think, but I would really like to work on being a better wife” (Dr. Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages, 158).
Whether the response was positive or negative, she’d accept it. Then she’d start doing specific things and set goals to love him in ways he understood and appreciated. Every month, she’d ask for feedback. If the feedback were positive (meaning that her efforts were bearing fruit), then she’d make a request one week later if he could do something specific to show love for her. But whether or not he fulfilled the request wouldn’t change her efforts to love him.
There are more details to the story than this, but, Ann did this faithfully, and Dr. Chapman wrote the following: “In the next six months, Ann saw a tremendous change in Glenn’s attitude and treatment of her. The first month, he treated the whole thing lightly. But after the second month, he gave her positive feedback about her efforts. In the last four months, he responded positively to almost all of her requests, and her feelings for him began to change drastically. Glenn never came for counselling, but… encouraged Ann to continue her counselling… To this day, Glenn swears to his friends that I am a miracle worker. I know in fact that love is a miracle worker” (162).
We know God is love, Jesus is love, so Jesus is the miracle worker. Ann was a devout Christian and followed Jesus. She relied heavily on her faith in Him, because, without Him, she wouldn’t have been able to persevere. It’s He who gives us grace to love our enemies and change their hearts. We love our enemies because He loves them.