What We Talk About When We Talk About Loving Our Enemies

Jared Staudt

Every Sunday, we pray a dangerous prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s dangerous because we’re asking God to judge us as we judge others, creating our own measuring stick for God to use: “The measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2). There is good news here as well. If we need forgiveness from God, he promises it to us so long as we ourselves show mercy. We are not judged, however, by how we treat our friends, but how we treat our enemies. 

Dirk Willems provides one of the most radical examples of loving an enemy. He was born a Catholic in the Netherlands, though he renounced his baptism as an infant and joined the Anabaptist movement that held only to adult baptism. For this he was arrested, as heresy was a capital crime according to civil law. While in prison, he escaped through the window using a rope of tied rags. While crossing a marshy pond to safety, a pursuing guard fell through the ice. Willems specifically thought of Jesus’ words “love your enemies,” and turned back to help the guard, saving his life. In turn, Willems was arrested again, and in 1569 was burned at the stake. Even if we would not admire his theology, Willems shows us practically what it means to love you enemy and to “do good to those who persecute you” (Lk 6:27).

Who is my enemy? This in the inverse of the question, “who is my neighbor?” that a Pharisee asked Jesus, leading to the parable of the Good Samaritan. We find our neighbor in those people we directly meet who are in need. Our enemies, likewise, are those who directly do us harm. It’s tempting to think of our enemies as abstract and distant figures, like terrorists in another country or a foreign dictator. Loving our enemies, however, is much more concrete, consisting in doing good to those who harm us in our daily lives. 

What are some examples? Your boss who unfairly passes you over for a promotion. Your neighbor who keeps you up with a loud party. Someone on the road who cuts you off. And most often, your own family. Think how many times we have either experienced or heard of family members who refuse to talk to each other for years. “Yes,” we could respond, “but do you know what my aunt said to me and how hurtful it was?” Or, “Did I tell you what my Dad did to me when I was little? How could I forgive him for that?” It is true, we all have been hurt by those closest to us (and we also have hurt them). But, do we respond with love? Love is recognizing that someone has trespassed against us and still willing and working for their good. It means letting go of a self-focus that seeks vindication and retribution.  

God does not ask to love people because they deserve it. He asks us to love them because He loves and forgives us and loves the person who hurt us as well. If we hold onto grudges and refuse to forgive, we will become weighted down and unable to grow in holiness. If we accept injustices with love, this willing burden will make us more like Christ. I think of the example of St. Germaine, who lived in 16th century France. Born with a crippled arm and diseased skin, her stepmother beat her and left her to sleep in the stable. She returned only kindness to her and, even in her neglect, served others generously. 

God looks carefully at how we respond to those who harm us, because we ourselves were once his own enemies, as St. Paul says (Rom 5:10). Nevertheless, he came to us in love and died for us so that we could be friends with him. In return, he asks that we do the same to others. In fact, Jesus says that if we love our enemies, we will become like God himself: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:35-36).

This mercy should flow out to others. Christians are called to be people of peace and to overcome division. As Catholics, we are beginning to be persecuted more and more in our own country. What should our response be? Paul tells us, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate” (1 Cor 4:12-13). Paul is telling us what it means to turn to the other cheek. When we are wronged, rather than seeking revenge, we patiently and lovingly endure and seek reconciliation. This does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves. If we are in a position of responsibility, we have a particular obligation to care for those under our watch and keep them safe. There is just self-defense, but, even then, we must do so by praying for the aggressor and even doing good for him as much as we can. Even in those situations, we are called to be generous, forgiving, and humble.

Christians have a litmus test. Forgiving those who have wronged us comprises an essential act of the Christian faith and one that calls us to God’s mercy. If we are holding on to any grudges, let’s let them go. If we just cannot forgive someone, ask the Lord for help. When we are put down for our faith, respond with charity. When politics divides, seek peace. When we are faced with lies, patiently and humbly bear witness to the truth. Jesus gives us a path to holiness: imitating his own humility and self-sacrificing love. If we love our enemies and work for their good, we will become a source of healing within our families, the Church, and our country. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!