How Do I Love My Enemies?

Christians have suffered severe persecution throughout history. Those who persecuted, or opposed, them, were their enemies, and Jesus commanded His followers to love them.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). Such a command seems impossible to fulfill when we understand “love” to mean having positive feelings about something and “enemy” as someone we don’t like. If that is what those words mean, then Jesus is telling us to like people we don’t like! In order to avoid a contradiction, we would have to understand Him to be saying, “stop disliking people and like them a lot instead.” Unfortunately, we don’t have that much control over our emotions. Fortunately, though, there are better ways to understand the biblical concept of an enemy (click here for our study on love).

The main OT word is ‘oyeb and the direct NT equivalent is echthros (the latter is almost always used to translate the former in the Greek translation of the OT). ‘oyeb essentially refers to hostility, and thus an “enemy” is one who is hostile to, or opposes, another. In light of this, Ex. 23:4-5 is particularly interesting. The Israelites were commanded to return the donkey or ox of their ‘oyeb if they found it wandering. Moses then says that if a person were to find the donkey of “one who hates you” fallen down, he was to help. The hating person is parallel to the ‘oyeb, which means that they have similar ideas. From this, we see that an enemy is one who hates another (the primary concept of hatred is opposition).

This meaning is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the OT. It primarily refers to the enemies of God and His people (i.e., the Egyptians, Ex. 15:9; the Canaanites, Deut. 12:10; etc.), though it also refers to personal enemies (as above, Ex. 23:4-5; of David—and ultimately Jesus, 2 Sam. 7:9-11; Ps. 110:1, etc.). Even Israel is called God’s enemy is passages like Isa. 63:10 when they fell into sin. In all of these, the idea is the same: a person or nation opposed to another, usually God.

Echthros is very similar to ‘oyeb except, due to the theological emphasis of the NT, it focuses more on personal enemies (in the OT, the focus was usually on the nation of Israel and her relationship with other nations. Thus, enemies, of individuals, Israel, or even God, are usually national in character. In the NT, the focus is greatly shifted to the individual and their relationship to Christ). Yet clear parallels are found with OT usage. We may have personal enemies, but this is especially the enemies of God becomes our enemies (Phil. 3:18; James 4:4, etc.). Every Christian was once God’s enemy in that they opposed His will (Rom. 5:10). Death is our enemy because it stands in opposition to both our will and God’s (1 Cor. 15:26).

An “enemy” is simply a person or thing who opposes, persecutes, hinders, or hates another. We naturally have ill feelings for those who oppose us. That does not mean, however, that an enemy is someone we don’t like. It just so happens that we don’t like our enemies! Further, people may be our enemies for several reasons. The main reason the Bible is concerned with is spiritual. People will oppose us because we follow Christ. Christian brothers ought not to oppose one another at all, but should live at peace in unity with one another.

In light of this, Jesus’ words in Matt. 5:44, while still not easy, make sense. He is not commanding us to have nice feelings for people we don’t like. He is commanding us to take care of even those who persecute us. After all, that is just what God did for us when we were His enemies (Rom. 5:10).

When was the last time you loved an enemy? How did you do so?