How to Love and Forgive Your Enemies
Every day we’re confronted with at least one opportunity to choose between practicing charity or being selfish. Moreover, the defining command of Our Lord to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us marks Christians as significantly different from others. Most Christians readily acknowledge this ideal, but the question is: How do I do that? How do I love my enemy? For love is a tricky thing, and it seems commonplace that many people translate the phrase love thy enemy into have good feelings for thy enemy – but that’s not love. In a world filled with violence and injustice, this challenge is more present day to day than we may realize. As our country reflects on the acts of terrorism committed 15 years ago and as we continue to witness tragic events worldwide and in our own lives and communities, let us consider what Our Lord’s command truly means and how we may live up to this standard.
What is Love?
In a fundamental way, love is an act of the will. While many people identify love as feelings of infatuation, lust, or both; love is essentially something that we choose. Consider the four kinds of love that we see in scripture:
- Agape (the highest kind of love)
- Storge (the natural love that exists between members of a family)
- Philia (platonic love between friends)
- Eros (sexual love)
Nowhere in this list do we see disordered lust or the feeling that we call infatuation. The difficulty we face when discussing love is that our own experience is not always clarified or submitted to revelation. What? Our experience submitted to revelation? Truly this is a strange doctrine, since most people will tell you that feelings are neither good nor bad. If we are to become perfect in Christ, if we are to make up in ourselves what is lacking in the body of Christ (Colossians 1:24), then everything about us, even our desires and feelings, must be submitted to God.
In our culture, love is primarily a feeling. We frequently hear people speak of “love at first sight”, or say “I want to marry the one I love,” or after years of marriage, “I’m no longer in love with my spouse.” And while we should honor the reality that this is our common expression of language, we also must press beyond our personal predilections and predispositions to say that there is a profound lack of love in what we hear.
Take the saying love at first sight. This phrase gives people, especially young people, the impression that our feelings are most important in determining the proper object of our desire. We can recognize the truth that there are strong feelings around love but also realize that our emotions can lead us astray. Simply because we are attracted to someone or that the sight or thought of our beloved stirs wonderful feelings in our heart does not indicate that that person is good for us or that we are good for him. Can we admit that we may desire things we should not?
Consider the phrase I no longer love my spouse. This typically means that I no longer feel strong attraction to my spouse. While there are fewer stories about people who “fall in love again” than there are examples of people who take full advantage of no-fault divorce laws, the truth is that this phrase shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what real love is.
Love as Desire
We need to honor, though, the essential nature of love as a desire. We see this especially in the feeling of love. But even though infatuation is not true love, it does touch on this essential nature. Consider infatuation’s opposite. We see in the man who “no longer loves his wife” an example of a man who no longer desires his wife.
We also speak of the fulfillment of love when we find a kind of union with the object of our love, our beloved. When we have a friend (philia) and enjoy his company, it’s because we like to spend time with him, doing things together. We lament the time we’re apart. As parents, the love (storge) that we have for our children is complete when we are able to be together as a family, enjoying each other’s company. The fulfillment of the desire for union is seen most strongly in sexual love (eros) because it is in the fulfillment of the sexual act that we find a sense of completion, even if disordered and base when lustful.
Aristophanes, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. John of the Cross admit the strong character of love as a desire for union. It’s always a good thing when a pagan agrees with two theologians! If we consider, too, that the ardor of the heart that speaks to us in love at first sight as well as the contempt of the heart that speaks in I am no longer desirous, we can make a pretty good case for the notion that love has at least two components: It is part desire for another and it finds fulfillment in the union of that desire.
A Working Definition of Love
It seems, then, that a working definition of love could be this: The desire for another that finds fulfillment when the lover and beloved are united. But how can Our Lord command us to love our enemies? Praying for persecutors is easy, compared to what seems to follow from our working definition. Do I really have to desire to be united to my enemy? If our hearts are to be subject to revelation, the simple answer is yes.
In order to resolve this difficulty, we need to consider the fourth kind of love, agape. The essence of agape is that it is at once both selfless and giving as well as makes the lover better by his act of selfless giving. Agape is not natural. It is the fruit of God’s love poured into us, the fruit of our sanctification by Christ and proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Agape originates in God and finds its fulfillment when we respond freely to Him and find in Him our peace and consolation. Embracing Divine Love means that our hearts are subject to revelation, that our disordered feelings and desires for base things are subject to Christ’s ideal for us, and that our desire for union with another is motivated by nothing other than God Himself.
God is totally good, and good is diffusive: Good seeks to share itself with others. If God’s presence in us is real, then we will want to share His goodness with everyone around us. These propositions seem simple enough when taken in isolation from our enemies, but when confronted by someone whom we really don’t like, who offends us intentionally, who has set himself against us from the very core of his being, and, especially, someone who has done great harm to us or those we love, we are faced with an ideal that seems impossible.
When we are one with a friend, we find that we tend to become like him. We adopt their manners, habits, and even their outlook and perspectives. That is why Cicero defines friendship as “a complete accord in all things, human and divine.” If we are united to God, shouldn't that change us? Should not we long to be changed so that we are ever more like Him, like Our Lord? Herein lies the key to understanding how to love our enemies.
We Can’t Love Our Enemies without Loving God First
Loving our enemies is a direct result of the love of God. The divine agape is manifested in us by changing us to be more like God, and insofar as we are changed, we allow God’s love to work in us and through the divine agape we can be united to our enemies. Again: loving our enemies is only possible when we are filled with God’s love, content to be in His presence, and not worried or fearful about the outcome of our actions.
In the act of loving our enemy, we must submit our feelings and will to revelation to embrace a personal martyrdom of the spirit, the tangible denial of our own selfish motives, and desire the good for someone else. It seems that this is only possible when our own selfish hearts are completely content to be one with God, loving Love Himself even more than we love ourselves. In a fundamental way, loving our enemy means that our wills are perfectly subjected to God and we respond to others not as our feelings might dictate, but as God would.
Consider the martyrs of the Church, especially those who died blessing their persecutors or commending their murderers to God. These men and women knew that nothing external in their lives could separate them from the love of God. The martyr’s entire being (mind, heart, will, emotions) is so enrapt in the divine love that they fear nothing and act with perfect integrity. They realize in a fundamental way that their life does not belong to them, it belongs to God.
In a practical way, loving one’s enemy means that we must act with integrity and kindness toward him, respecting his freedom to be obnoxious or cruel, and desiring to be united to him. In a practical way, when we fail to act with integrity and kindness toward an enemy, it’s a good indication that we may not be as in love with God as we think we are.
If we have a hard time desiring union with those who hate us or harm us, here are some things that may be holding us back:
- We are concerned with our reputation more than our position before God
- We are fearful of some particular outcome
- Our passions have control of us instead of our higher sense of agape
- We don’t want to look foolish
- We actually want harm to come to another person
- We are worried about the comforts of the world more than the consolation of God
When we don’t actively love our enemy and desire to be united to him, then our hearts are not subject to revelation and we’re allowing selfish motives and desires to manifest themselves in us. Our Lord says in Luke 6:45 that when our hearts are filled with God, good works flow from us. There is a direct correlation between our good actions and the presence of God within us.
Truly, the command of Our Lord to love our enemies does not seem easy. But when we’re fully immersed in God’s love, we realize the easiness of our yoke (Matt 11:28-30). Consider the picture of the martyr of the Spanish Civil War, Blessed Martin Martinez Pascual. This picture was taken immediately before his execution. He looks as easy and content as though he had stopped for a photo when out for a hike in the country. There is no fear in his eyes, no worry or terror at what he knows will soon afflict him. He’s more than content to live in the moment and be a faithful witness in his submission to Divine Love, finding joy even in this last moment of his life.
God raises up martyrs to give us hope. When we look at the photograph of Blessed Martin, we see that it’s possible to be united to our Divine Beloved and, from that union, reach out to be united to those around us, perfectly fulfilling Our Lord’s command to love our enemy.
Of course this is not easy for us, but Our Lord will give us the grace to do His will if we ask it of Him. Start today by saying a prayer for someone who has hurt you or a loved one and then praying for the grace to love that person in spite of their actions. Watch the power of prayer make what may have seemed impossible possible even for our fallen human hearts.
How do you practice love and forgiveness toward those who have hurt you?