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How to love when you want to retaliate

In our last issue of A Pastor’s View, we discussed St. Valentine and what the Bible has to say about love. We primarily focused on loving those who also love us or are part of our inner circles. 

But what about those who are not so easy to love—those with whom we have experienced conflict, disappointment or pain? 

As children, many of us heard the little adage, “Sticks and stone can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Most of us know that’s not true. Hurts from “sticks and stones” heal rather quickly. Hurtful words can affect us for years, even a lifetime.  

Name the person who hurt you most deeply or most recently. We know from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount what not to do: we are not to return hate for hate, hurt for hurt.

So, what we are to do if we don’t retaliate?

Love on purpose

Jesus tells us, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Matthew 5:43).

“Love your neighbor” is a familiar biblical injunction. We find it as early as Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “Neighbor” comes from “nigh-bor,” one who is “nigh” or near. Loving our neighbor is a basic and familiar Christian ethic.

But were Jesus’ hearers really taught, “hate your enemy”? In fact, they were. The Jewish rabbis considered fellow Jews their neighbor. Everyone else, the Gentile world, was not, and was in fact their spiritual enemy. The Gentile world would corrupt them with its defiled food, customs, and paganism.

Here we find basic humanity exposed. It’s easy to love those who like us and are like us. It’s hard to like those who are not like us and do not like us. It’s human nature to love our neighbor and hate our enemy.

Now Jesus takes his stand: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44).

This statement has no parallel in the Jewish tradition or literature. No religious teacher in world history ever defended such an ethic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred while practicing these very words, said about them, “The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus” (The Cost of Discipleship, 164).

This is the action which makes our love both real and possible.

Jesus expanded these words by saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). When we pray for our enemies, our love becomes real. It moves from sentiment to substance, from feeling to action. It takes wings and grows feet. It becomes practical and tangible.

And when we pray for those who persecute us, our actions produce feelings. We act out love, and eventually feel love. It’s a process which takes time, but it works.

Such forgiving love in action reveals our spiritual genetics: “that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (v. 45). God blesses both the evil and the good. Sun shines and rain falls on the unrighteous and the righteous. And we’re glad, for we’ve all been evil and unrighteous.

A father should love his children, whether or not they love him; and so God loves us. A sibling should love his sister or brother, whether or not they love him; and so should we. Such love shows us to be our Father’s children.

Otherwise we are no different from the children of the world. The tax-collectors, the most despised people in Israel, love those who love them.

Such selfless, forgiving love fulfills the purpose for which we were created: “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). “Perfect” is the word teleios. In this context it means to achieve the purpose for which we were intended. In this sense a screwdriver is “perfect” if it does its job. It is not “sinless”—it may have nicks on the handle and paint on the blade. But if it turns the screw it was meant to turn, it is teleios.

What is our intended purpose? Jesus made it clear: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. God is love (1 John 4:8), and he has created us to love as he does, to forgive as he does, to love our neighbor because we love our Father and to prove we love our Father by loving our neighbor.

And so selfless, forgiving love is the purpose for which we exist. Now, how do we learn to give it?

Love in practice

Dr. Everett Worthington edited a defining book on forgiveness, titled Dimensions of Forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives. When he began his research, he had no idea how much he would need its results personally. On New Year’s morning of 1996, his elderly mother was found beaten to death with a crowbar and a baseball bat. His advice is both professionally informed and personally compelling.

Dr. Worthington suggests five steps towards forgiveness. In examining them while preparing this message, I was amazed by their parallel to Jesus’ words in our text. They form the acronym REACH.

“R” stands for recall. Recall the hurt, as objectively as you can. Admit the reality of the pain you have experienced. Do not deny it, pretend it doesn’t exist, or excuse the person who caused it. Think about the person who hurt you most, as realistically as possible.

Jesus begins at the same place: “Love your enemies” (v. 44). Not “love if you have enemies.” He knows that we do, and that we know who they are. He warned us: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Where is yours? Who caused it? Think about the person, and especially what that person did, the specific actions which injured you. Recall the hurt in all its reality.

“E” stands for empathize. Try to understand why this person hurt you, from his point of view.

Jesus tells us to “Love our enemies,” using the unusual Greek word agape. This word was employed very seldom in the Greek world prior to Christianity. The common Greek words for “love” point to sexual, family, or friendship love.

Agape is far more. It is selfless, sacrificial, the love which puts the other person first with no thought of reward. The love which cares for the other, however they feel about us.

How do we do this? “A” in Dr. Worthington’s acronym stands for giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness.

Jesus tells us to “pray for those who persecute us.” His words are present tense—do it even while they are persecuting us. This is the act whereby genuine forgiveness always begins.

Such prayer surrenders the right to get even with the person who hurts us but gives them over to God instead. Such prayer enables us to see this person as God does, as a weak, fallible, complicated human being like ourselves. And such prayer begins the process of wishing for their welfare.

Note that praying for our enemies does not deny justice. Nowhere does Jesus teach us that forgiveness suspends the consequences of evil actions. The legal process which governs human affairs and nations must proceed. To forgive means that we pardon personally—we give up our right to punish this person ourselves. We no longer want revenge and vengeance for ourselves. We trust this person into the hands of God and that justice which is fair and right.

“C” stands for public commitment to forgiveness. Dr. Worthington’s clients write a “certificate of forgiveness,” a letter of forgiveness to the offender. They write such forgiveness in their diary or tell a trusted friend what they have done. They make public their pardon for the one who has hurt them.

Jesus makes clear that our forgiveness must be equally public. This is our witness, proof that we are children of a forgiving Father. Such forgiveness separates us publicly from the tax-collectors and pagans of our day. It shows the world that we belong to a God of grace.

“H” stands for the final step, to hold onto forgiveness. Every time the pain returns, we take these steps again. We recall it, we empathize with the one who hurt us, we forgive altruistically through prayer, and we commit to such forgiveness. As we do so we become “perfect,” fulfilling God’s created purpose for our lives. We love as he loves. We make Jesus’ love real through our own.

In short, do for others what Jesus has done for us. Give to others that which he has given to you. And he will help you give it.

Corrie ten Boom, the Holocaust survivor who lost her entire family to the Nazis, knew firsthand that forgiveness is such a process. She likened it to letting go of a bell rope. When you’re pulling on the rope which rings a bell, and you let it go, the bell keeps ringing for a while.

But if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stops. She says that forgiveness is not something we feel, but something we do. It is letting go of the rope.

This is what Jesus did for us. Now he invites us to pay forward his forgiving grace. Loving those who love you back is one thing. But, loving those who have failed you, hurt you or disappointed you is another. For whom do you need to let go of the rope today?