What did Jesus mean by “Love your enemies”?
Can you help me understand these passages in light of how we are to treat the abuser? Jesus seems to teach us two diametrically opposed responses to those who do evil — one of which is found in these verses.
But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 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 evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27-36)
I was recently asked this very good question. Here was my reply.
So, aren’t we supposed to be telling abuse and domestic violence victims that God wants them to stay in the abuse, make themselves available for more abuse, let the abuser keep right on withholding money and resources from them, and wait for God to reward them on that Day? You have the same thing in the parallel passage in Matthew:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48)
In light of these commands, do we have this whole abuse thing all turned around when we tell victims to divorce the abuser or to turn them in to the police? No. Not at all. Let me show you why.
Jesus is teaching that His people are to emulate God the Father. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Sons bear the character of their father. If we are sons of God, then we behave as He does, reflecting our spiritual DNA given us in the new birth. So, how does God treat the wicked who are His enemies?
- He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil
- He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good
- He sends rain on the just and on the unjust
See it? Jesus is teaching us about God the Father’s common grace. Common grace is undeserved favor that God shows to all people in common. It is an expression of His mercy and love toward all — a general mercy and love. Not His specific, electing and redeeming love shown to His own in Christ, but His grace poured out on all human beings. Just and unjust. Wicked and righteous. This is the thing Jesus is teaching about in these passages — how we are to reflect our Father’s character through showing all people, including enemies and persecutors, common grace.
How do we do that? Well, first of all we do not seek personal vengeance upon them. Pray for justice, yes. Turn them into the police, yes. Pray that Christ will soon come and mete out His perfect justice upon the wicked. Yes. Pick up a rifle and go snipe them? No! That is personal vengeance and we are to leave it to the Lord. Let Him repay them.
So let’s bring this home to the case of the domestic abuser and his victim. What is Jesus telling us in these verses about such a case? It is this:
- Realize that they are indeed an enemy and a persecutor. Jesus is not telling us to pretend that this isn’t so. He tells us He is talking about “those who are evil, those who strike us, those who are our enemies.” There is no fiction here that He is promoting. “Well, he’s really a good guy who has just had a rough go of it in life and if you truly get to know him you would see that and love him.” Nope! None of that abuser-enabling stuff here. Jesus calls these people what they are. Our enemies.
- But in dealing with these enemies, knowing full well that they ARE enemies, we extend the Lord’s common grace to them when the opportunity comes. We don’t zap them immediately — we leave that to the Lord. We don’t let them go hungry or naked — we give to them expecting nothing in return. If we see one of them laying on the road bleeding after a car wreck, we render first aid and call an ambulance. God the Father does these things and so must we. (In fact, the true Christian will WANT to do these things and we have to take care that this Spirit-led love in us is dealt out wisely or we get ourselves into trouble!).
NONE of this instruction precludes us from seeking justice or from escaping the abuse. None of it requires remaining married to the wicked abuser or keeping silent about the abuse. (In fact, God’s common grace sometimes comes in the form of His withholding of good things in order to lead someone to repentance).
So the question to ask in order to answer our quandries about Jesus’ teaching in this regard is, “Well, how does God Himself treat the wicked today?” “How did Jesus respond to His enemies when He was here on this planet?” The Lord, you see, showed them common grace, warned them to repent, announced the coming Day of Judgement to them, and told them they were children of the devil and would perish if they didn’t believe in Him.
But He never requires His people to be bound together with the wicked, to remain married to those who abuse them, or to just “suck it up and take it.” Nope. He doesn’t. So don’t let anyone claim that He does.