Learning from Jesus How to Treat Our Enemies

Jesus taught a lofty standard:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; (Matthew 5:44)

This command has that unique trademark of holiness: It is so unreasonable that any sensible person knows it is only possible when we have the mind of Christ.

Who responds to assaults and insults with kindness? Who offers goodness in trade for abuse? Who wishes spiritual blessings on those who mistreat them?  I strain to think of people in my own circle who are equal to the expectation. Some do quite well. Most of us fail regularly and abysmally. Jesus is the one who was able to live so charitably.

Jesus practiced what He preached

I think of the time the malicious Pharisee/lawyer came trying to embarrass Jesus. Jesus responded by sharing the story that is one of the greatest ever told, the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus frequently hung out with the most disagreeable people; He was “the friend of publicans and sinners” (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). He acted as if He liked and valued those whom others found unworthy of fellowship.

Jesus held up outsiders and losers as deserving of our love: the woman at the well, lepers, adulterers and sinners, and Samaritans. Jesus saw goodness and earnestness where others saw only disgrace.

His goodness was so ingrained that even when He was in His final pains, His instinctive action was to pray for forgiveness for those who imposed that pain.

Jesus is always shocking us, always elevating our vision of the possible.

Practicing Good Will in the Modern World

Our modern public discourse seems more harsh and judgmental than ever. We label those we disagree with as evil. We presume to know the motives of those we have never met. We use labels that make the angels blush. While we are inclined to defeat our enemies with hand-to-hand combat, Jesus invites us to win through transcendent goodness.

As regular targets of foul mischaracterization, Latter-Day Saints should be especially inclined toward generosity. Our people have been driven from place to place. We have been treated as a scourge. Even now we are regularly reminded that we do not meet the minimum requirements for the “Christian” label.

What a wonderful opportunity! To the extent we are people of sorrows and acquainted with grief, we may be, like Jesus, more tender and more compassionate. We may, as President Packer suggested in General Conference, respond to persecution with enlarged patriotism.

Elements of a Better Dialogue

The scriptures regularly command us not to judge each other (1 Chr. 19:6, Matt. 7:1, Luke 6:37, John 7:24, 3 Nephi 14:1, Mormon 8:20). In that area as all others, Jesus goes the extra mile. He looks for goodness where others see badness. In the broken-down soul He sees humility. In the sinner He sees emptiness and readiness. He perfectly practiced the charity He preached. He invites us to see each other with “kindness and pure knowledge” (2 Cor. 6:6, D&C 121:42). If we are to see each other right, we must first be willing to see goodness.

For example, I have had lively discussions with colleagues of the National Council on Family Relations about same sex marriage. Some of my best friends in the organization become livid when I speak in behalf of traditional marriage. But this is not because they are evil people who want to undermine society. It is because they value equality so highly. And perhaps because they are not blessed with the words of modern prophets. I can give them credit for their love of equality and fairness. And I can seek heavenly inspiration to help us bring more eternal principles into the discussion—if I am willing to be like Jesus.

I saw this same kind of generosity of spirit manifest in the writings of Jonathan Haidt. While he is clearly a liberal himself, he shows great respect for conservatives. He appreciates that each side of the political divide must bring its strengths if we are to flourish as a country—just as each partner in a marriage must bring his or her strengths if the partnership is to thrive.

Although I am a political liberal, I believe that conservatives have a better understanding of moral development.  My research confirms the common perception that liberals are experts in thinking about issues of victimization, equality, autonomy, and the rights of individuals, particularly those of minorities and nonconformists.  Conservatives, on the other hand, are experts in thinking about loyalty to the group, respect for authority and tradition, and sacredness.  When one side overwhelms the other, the results are likely to be ugly.  A society without liberals would be harsh and oppressive to many individuals.  A society without conservatives would lose many of the social structures and constraints that . . . are so valuable.  (Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 178, 242)

Haidt further observes that “liberals and conservatives are opponents in the most literal sense, each using the myth of pure evil to demonize the other side and unite their own” (p. 242). When we vilify our enemies and distance ourselves from them, we seem to be violating Jesus’ invitation to a better way, His way. He invites us to be open to each other.

We should not assume that truth and goodness will be victorious in our mortal encounters; they suffered regularly in His lifetime and ever since Adam and Eve entered this world of thorns and thistles. The triumph that seems to matter most to Him is not the cultural one but the personal one. He wants us to become, like Him, appreciators and cultivators of goodness.

Political and Personal Applications

My primary reason for writing about this subject is not the uncivil dialogue that is raging in our sacred nation. It is the uncivil dialogue that so often happens in my own soul.

As I grew up, I learned to preempt disagreement with my views by use of strong arguments and direct assaults on those who disagreed with me. This worked pretty well (pragmatically speaking) with my younger siblings.

But now, having passed my 60th birthday, I am begging heaven to teach me better ways. I want to be less judgmental. I want to overcome hardening of the categories and see goodness and earnestness where many see lowness and badness. I want to listen better to the hearts and minds of others. I want to be fully unafraid to speak the truth while doing so in kindness and love. I want to reach out to God’s most neglected and hurting children and treat them as He would.

I want to be like Jesus. I know that the sought change will require a miracle—the mighty change of heart. I know that any substantial change is likely to take years. Yet I am encouraged that God has taught me discontent with my old ways. I am grateful that He is patiently and lovingly inviting me to better ways. I pray that He may hasten His work that I may have some years to practice His way before I die.

May God help us all to speak, listen, love, and bless as Jesus did and does.

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  • Reply Charmaine October 9, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Neil Maxwell called these “hard sayings” I have come to be good at ignoring my enemy but loving them and doing good to them is a whole different struggle. My personal answer has been to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart that ye may be filled with ‘this’ love.” Moroni 7:48 This is part of every prayer I say and it does help. “This” love is the list He just gave us and begins–Charity suffereth long and is kind. If we had this list stamped on our brain it would change us. It sounds so simple sometimes. Our self serving selfishness seems to always get in the way. Christ is the answer for sure.

  • Reply Jim October 10, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    These last 6 verses in Matthew all instruct about loving others. I have heard one speaker state that even the final verse “Be ye therefore perfect” is also more specifically dealing with loving others- that we should love others perfectly, even has Heavenly Father loves us perfectly.

    Another interpretation is that it is by loving others, especially those that may be difficult to love, that we become perfect, whole, and complete.

    This is another great reminder- thank you for sharing.

    • Reply Jim October 10, 2008 at 7:46 pm

      That should be “the last 6 verses in Matthew 5….”

  • Reply Diana Gourley October 12, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Over the years, I have prayed earnestly for the gift of charity. I think this precious gift eluded me because I was feeling lonely and less than lovable, and I wanted the gift so my own wounded heart could be healed. Patiently, the Lord has tutored me, and I have learned that I was “seeking my own.” Therefore, I disqualified myself for a full measure of the gift. Now that I am learning to love freely, without strings attached, I am feeling the pure love of Christ in all aspects of my life. Thanks for your inspired messages. Your example, teachings, and especially your love and friendship have blessed my life.

  • Reply Jacob Brazell October 21, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I wonder if Jesus command to turn the other cheek is similar in spirit to Alma’s baptismal invitation which challenges us to bear one another’s burdens. Perhaps to turn one’s cheek is to help bear the other person’s burden of anger (etc.) which is causing them to lash out at us.

    • Reply admin October 30, 2008 at 9:13 pm

      Good insight! When we are smitten with someone’s anger, maybe the instruction applies–that we turn the other cheek. We do not need to feed anger with counter-anger.


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