My dictionary defines an “enemy” as “one who hates or bears ill will toward another.”
I wish I could say that I have never felt that way toward anyone, but the truth is that I find myself harboring ill will toward those who have caused me pain.
What should we do in such circumstances?
I need to set one thing clear at the outset of my remarks: When injustice has been done that causes damage to a person in some way—especially when such injustice is continuing or could continue—it is right to pursue justice so that injustice does not continue. It is neither merciful nor kind to turn a blind eye to injustice so that injustice continues. But the bulk of the time, the things we face with our so-called enemies are not issues of criminal injustice. In the normal, day-to-day struggles we experience with those whom we strongly dislike or hold ill will toward, what should we do?
At first I thought I found some pleasing counsel in Romans 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
I liked the idea of burning coals being heaped on my enemy’s head. If doing nice things to my enemy is the price I must pay to leave my enemy in excruciating pain, then I was willing to pay it!
Disappointingly, though, when I explored what this verse actually teaches, I discovered something different. In his book, “The Peacemaker,” Ken Sandee points out,
“Paul’s reference to ‘burning coals on his head’ indicates the irresistible power of deliberate, focused love. Ancient armies often used burning coals to fend off attackers. No soldier could resist this weapon for long; it would eventually overcome even the most determined attacker. Love has the same irresistible power. At the very least, actively loving an enemy will protect you from being spiritually defeated by anger, bitterness, and thirst for revenge. And, in some cases, your active and determined love for your opponent may be used by God to bring that person to repentance.”
Apparently, from God’s perspective, the goal of doing good to my enemy is not to inflict pain simply for the sake of pain, but to bring about their surrender. It’s for the sake of winning them over to a restored relationship. It seems that God is far more interested in restoring relationships than inflicting revenge.
Another verse that challenges me is James 1:20: “For human anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”
The “righteous life that God desires” for us is a life that is lived in the fullness of love and joy and peace and goodness (and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23). The bitterness of human anger will not bring about these things in anyone’s life. Only mercy and kindness will bring about the righteous life God desires for us.
Many centuries ago, Marcus Aurelius commented, “The true worth of a man is to be measured by the object he pursues. [The true worth of a woman is to be measured by the object she pursues.]” When we pursue bitterness, retaliatory gossip, or vengeance, our soul is shaped toward what we pursue. When we pursue mercy and kindness even toward our “enemies,” our soul is shaped in that direction. God does not call us to be kind to our enemies out of callousness to our feelings, but because the only way our souls will develop in good ways is by turning from bitterness to kindness.
—Tom Tripp is the Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Colusa. Pastor Tripp can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.