Forgiving Your Enemies: Does It Make Sense?
This Hub discusses the idea of loving our enemies—as Bible believers. It discusses how it takes courage to see challenging times and difficult choices as opportunities to grow, and how taking advantage of any opportunity for personal growth only strengthens us, spiritually. Spiritual maturity is something we need in order to learn to learn how to live, peacefully, with people who demonstrate hatred toward us. Spiritual maturity is something that comes with spiritual growth, and it takes courage to grow spiritually.
Does "love your enemy" mean you have to become friends with them? Put their names on your Christmas list? Does it mean you have to interact with them in any way, or excuse any acts of meanness or terrorism they may have perpetrated against you or against those you love? No. I don't believe that is what the Bible or Jesus had in mind when we were instructed to love our enemies. All it means, bottom line, is that we need to forgive them, that's all. Why? Because if we want God to forgive us for our sins, it means we have to forgive others for their sins.
Forgiving someone does not mean you are giving them a "get out of jail free card." Instead, forgiveness is simply letting go of any anger you might feel because of what someone has done to you, or to those you love. It really is not a gift God is forcing you to give to your enemy. Rather, it is a gift he asks you to give to yourself.
Forgiving Enemies: Can You Forgive Too Soon?
Love your enemies? "Come on," you might be saying, "You mean we’re really expected to do that?" While loving enemies by forgiving them for wrongdoing committed against you is a good thing, it might not work well when we try to do it too soon. In fact, there is research that says if you forgive too soon, without confronting your offender, it could lead to you being hurt again, by the same offender(s). In other words, forgiving too early can make you appear, to your enemy or enemies, to be "easy," and being viewed that way can lead to them heaping more of the same mistreatment upon you. Why not? You've let them know they can expect "instant forgiveness," so there is no good reason for them to change their behavior toward you.
Therefore, forgiving enemies can and should take time into consideration. Still, whenever any of us accepts, courageously, one of God’s difficult challenges, there’s a spiritual “payoff” in it for us. Every time we choose God’s way over our own way, we are choosing to grow spiritually. But when we choose to go our way instead of His, we can obstruct or impede our spiritual growth. Why? Because it takes no courage to take the easy way. And whenever we choose “easy” over “difficult,” especially when it comes to things of a spiritual nature, we’re choosing to stay the same, to not grow, personally or spiritually. I place into evidence this passage of scripture from Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount,” Matthew 5:43-48:
“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; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Forgiving Enemies: Growth Comes with Challenge
Think about this. Isn’t it easy to be kind to people who are kind to you? And isn’t it just about effortless to love people who show love for you? But how can we expect to learn and grow spiritually if we only do those things we already know how to do; those things that come as easily as breathing?
Here’s a good exercise: Think back to when you were in elementary school. Let’s go all the way back to the first grade. Remember your first grade teacher’s classroom? Okay, now put yourself back there, in the seat you loved the most, and then let’s pretend it’s the third week of school. You’ve learned your alphabets and now you’re being introduced to words beginning with each letter of the alphabet in preparation for learning how to read. The main lesson of the day focused on words beginning with the letter “A.” It was a good day, but now the day is over, and you’re happy because you’ve learned a lot about words that begin with the letter “A.” The next day you come back to your classroom after spending the last evening and night anxiously waiting for daylight, so that you can begin learning words that begin with the letter “B.” You’re in class, all eager and excited, ready to learn some great “B” words. You’re really pumped about learning, and the teacher is so good at teaching, you just know you’re going to enjoy this day, maybe even more than the day before. But, instead of moving on to “B” words, your teacher goes back over each and every “A” word, and you spend another day focusing on "A." Not on new “A” words, but the very same words you learned the day before.
Okay, you think. Fine. Maybe you needed that for the sake of retention. Maybe it helped to go through the repetitions one more time. Then the next day comes and you’re excited all over again because you know you’ll be learning something new that day. But halt. Instead of moving on to “B” words, your teacher continues to go over the very same “A” words. Next day, same thing. The day after that, the same. Get the picture? Even as a little child, if that happened to you, you’d soon realize that you’re not going to be learning anything new. You would know your development as a student has been stunted because your teacher is stuck on “A.”
Well God is not stuck on “A.“ He is the world’s best teacher, and he has a lot of exciting and nourishing messages already prepared for us to learn. But we must be willing and eager to learn the lessons, or else the learning process would be more like labor than enjoyment. There’s a good reason God doesn’t ask of us only that which is easy to accomplish. Because God wants us to grow in our spirituality. In order to grow at anything, we must be challenged. As we grow, even our tests of strength must get tougher and tougher, because even though none of us will ever be perfect, God is still working at perfecting us.
Forgiving Enemies: Difficulty Precedes Growth
Whenever I have said something to someone in anger, whether provoked or not, the words “I’m sorry” require much more courage of me than any words I spoke in anger. If you really think about it, gauging whether or not you show love to those who hate or persecute you is a good way to examine your own commitment to walking the walk of Christ. Because Jesus was the epitome of humility. He didn’t engage in fist fights and raging outbursts of anger against people who wronged him.
The only time Jesus showed physical outrage in terms of anger was when he turned over a table when people were boldly using the church as their own personal flea market. Even on the cross at Calvary while slowly dying and enduring the worst kind of punishment, He uttered “father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Well if Jesus is our role model, then we have to at least be trying to learn how to face or to endure, with courage and humility, difficult or challenging situations or circumstances that provoke anger, while standing firm and strong in our faith.
Another good question is: Does it matter who is asking or expecting you to forgive your enemies? If the person who is asking you to forgive someone who wronged you has something to gain from asking, then it is time to take a good and hard look at the one who is making the request. If the person making the request has a stake in asking you to forgive—through financial, emotional, or friendship ties to the one who mistreated, injured, or wronged you, then you have every right to question their request. The request might be coming from someone who has more empathy for the one who did you wrong, and that means you have to question them expecting you to forgive the perpetrator quickly, or telling you to do it so that you can "go on with your life." It is probably not your life, but the perpetrator's life, that they are really concerned about.
Therefore, forgiveness needs to be done by you, because God instructs you to do it, and you should do it in your own time. It should not be done because some other human being asked or expects you to forgive.
It’s hard to do the right thing, the unpopular thing; the different from “everybody’s doing it” thing. What does it take, then, to love an enemy? I’m going to borrow from the cadence of the Cowardly Lion’s diatribe in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz, to make my point about what I believe it takes. Here goes.
What is it that we need to find that can help us make better choices every day as we live our lives? Courage. What is the one thing that, if we summon it, will be there to give us the strength we need to do what we know is right? Courage. What is it we know is always there, waiting inside on the wings of a prayer, but for most is forgotten without even a care? Courage.
When someone mistreats you or harms you or someone you love, pray for them, and ask God to give you a kind heart that won't allow you to mistreat or cause harm to others, unless you are responding in self-defense. Did David forgive Goliath? Or did David fight Goliath? In Ecclesiastes 3:8, the Bible tells us there is a time to love, and a time to hate, a time for war, and a time for peace. I guess he leaves us to decide when each of these times is upon us. God does not expect you to be a chump or a doormat inviting people to walk on you. The Creator of All Things knows and understands that you would have to relinquish all self-respect and that you could not accomplish your purpose for having been given life if you think you were put on Earth only to be someone else's punching bag.
Psalm 144:1 says "blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle." Philippians 3:2 says "look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh." And Luke 10:19 says "Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you." So, no. When God asks us to love and to forgive our enemies, he is not asking you to just put up with any kind of abuse and evil treatment while forgiving and loving those that perpetrate all these evil acts against you. But he does expect you to make a commitment, today, to live your life in a way that respects every person's humanity, even those who don't respect yours.
Choosing to love and to forgive our enemies is a hard, difficult, courageous choice. Only a person of great strength and courage can ever love or forgive an enemy. Only those who believe in and who demonstrate a sound commitment to God's word, and who obey God's word even when no one else is looking, can ever choose to love or to forgive an enemy.
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD