July 20, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus may want us to love our enemies, but how can we do that when they arouse in us feelings of fear, anger, and even hatred?
One of my all-time favorite movies is The Chariots of Fire. It’s a wonderfully told and inspiring story about two British runners who compete in the 1924 Olympics. The movie is well worth watching, but for now, I want to focus just on the title and the biblical story it evokes. That story is about the prophet Elisha and his servant and can be found in 2 Kings 6:8-23.
Israel’s perennial enemy, Aram, had planned attacks on Israel, which had been thwarted by Elisha’s “divine intelligence” that had warned Israel ahead of time. Enraged, the king of Aram sent his chariots to capture Elisha. One morning, Elisha’s servant awoke surrounded by Aram’s army. Understandably alarmed, he asked Elisha what they should do.
Elisha’s response is telling and anticipates Jesus’ instructions in today’s text.
Elisha begins by saying, “Don’t be afraid … Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (6:16). Then he prays that his servant’s eyes would be opened to that unseen reality. In response, “The LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (6:17).
When the Arameans attack, Elisha prays that the LORD would strike them blind. After blindness engulfs the Aramean army, Elisha leads them—blind and helpless—to the king of Israel. Almost giddy with the prospect of exacting retribution on Israel’s enemies, the king of Israel asks Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” (6:21) To everyone’s surprise, Elisha counsels hospitality instead of vengeance: “Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master” (6:22). To the king’s credit, he hosts “a great feast” for his enemies and sent them back to Aram unharmed. And the other surprising ending to that story? “The bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory” (6:23).
Love can—through prayer and radical hospitality—transform even our enemies, if not into friends, then perhaps into peaceable neighbors (if only for a season). This “chariots of fire” story reminds us of the wisdom found in Proverbs 25:21-22:
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.
This is the same wisdom that Paul quotes (in Romans 12:20) in his instruction to the early church not to respond to evil with evil but to overcome evil with good.
As I suggested yesterday, the principal reason we are to love our enemies is that we are to become like God and not become like our enemies. And, sometimes, as we saw with the Elisha story, that love can be transformative, even for our enemies. But how can we love our enemies the way Jesus asks when they provoke in us visceral responses of fear, anger, and even hatred?
Learning to love our enemies requires what psychologists call emotional regulation. Or, to put it in more biblically familiar language, it requires self-control. Enemies provoke “fight or flight” responses that can overwhelm us if we allow them. So how can we learn to love even our enemies?
First, we need to see the larger context in which we find ourselves. Like Elijah’s servant, it’s easy to see only our immediate physical danger and miss the larger situation and story. That’s not to deny the reality of the threat that we face. But it is to reframe the situation in light of God’s greater power and providence. As the apostle John says (almost echoing Elisha), “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4 NIV). And God’s providence and power are always working for good, even amid human and systemic evil.
Second, we need to shift our attention away from our enemy and towards God. That’s why Jesus begins by instructing us to pray. Prayer disrupts our emotional focus on our enemies and shifts our emotional focus to God. Prayer allows us to draw on God’s power in our situational weakness. Prayer focused on God’s goodness enables us to respond with God-like generosity and hospitality in the face of fear, anger, and hatred.
Third, we need to acknowledge and name the emotions that we feel. Jesus doesn’t ask us to deny how we feel, especially with regard to our enemies. Early in my Christian upbringing, I mistakenly internalized that faith meant denying how I felt. While it is true that faith sometimes calls us to act contrary to how we feel (that’s what self-control is, after all), it is not true that we should deny the reality of our feelings. Emotional denial does not help us learn to love our enemies. Both ancient biblical wisdom and modern psychology encourage us to be honest with ourselves and with God about our feelings. By naming our feelings honestly, we can find help in mastering them.
Learning to love our enemies wisely is perhaps the greatest challenge of following Jesus. As our text today teaches, loving our enemies is really part of learning to love our neighbor. And, as Jesus will say elsewhere, loving our neighbor is really part of learning to love God. To bring it full circle, as I’ve said before, learning to love God supremely allows us to love all others rightly.
May God help us to love like that.
What is most difficult for you in learning to love your enemies?
Take your list from yesterday’s devotion and use it as a stimulus to pray. In your prayer, look for the larger context in which God is working, shift your emotional focus from your enemies to God, and name the emotions you are currently feeling.
Lord Jesus Christ,
You loved your enemies wisely. Even though you died for your enemies, you were not naïve in how you loved them.
Help us to learn to love our enemies the way you loved them.
We ask in your name.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Prophet Elisha’s Attention to Ordinary Work (2 Kings 2-6).
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During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.