Within the human heart lies a familiar love, a love that naturally extends to those who value us, who hold us in high regard, those who treat us with dignity and respect and whose affections envelop us in such a way that we tangibly feel some form of significance. It is with great comfort and ease that we return the same kind of treatment because more often than not, the love we receive determines the love we give.
As part of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives His listeners a seemingly simple command…to love. But the words that follow are what distinguish a familiar love from a love that feels almost foreign; a love that is natural versus a love that is unnatural; a love that is easily extended compared to a love that is downright difficult.
Jesus does not finish the statement by urging His listeners to love those who treat them kindly or those who can benefit them in some way; He does not encourage them to love those with position, wealth, status, or power. The words Jesus spoke were as counter-cultural then as they are today. “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 (Matthew 5:43-45).’” Two statements that stand at odds with one another. In other words, He reminds His audience that what is familiar love from a worldy perspective, stands in stark contrast to the kind of love Christ desires His followers to show. Anyone can easily love those who love them. But Jesus commands His disciples to love those who oppose them, those who mistreat them, and those who are actively hostile towards them. This is hard love. This is a love that keeps no record of wrongs, a love that demands sacrifice, a love that comes with a cost. This is the kind of love perfectly exemplified in the person and work of Christ.
There was Jesus…falsely accused, beaten, spit upon, mocked and betrayed. And as He hung on that torturous cross, out of his mouth He pleads with the Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:24).” The heart of God’s grace and forgiveness was reflected in prayer while He demonstrated the greatest sacrifice and act of love the world has ever known. The very ones who plotted evil against Him, the ones who placed the crown of thorns upon His head, the ones who drove the nails into His hands, these were the very ones for whom He died.
But these men were not the only enemies of Jesus. Romans 3 points to the fact that each one of us carries the same unrighteousness in our own heart. To be an enemy means to be an opponent of or to stand against. Apart from Christ, we were once enemies of the cross, opposed to the laws of God and living for ourselves. But even in our hostility to the things of God, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Jesus’ sacrificial love was not based on how it would be received. It was not contingent on how many times we would sin against Him. His love was in no way conditional. It was based on the fact that even when we were enemies of Christ, He valued us and desired to pursue us in such a way that we would not longer be called His enemies, but His friends (John 15:12-15).
So why would Jesus instruct His followers to love their enemies? Christ desires to produce in us a love that is mature and complete, a love that lacks nothing and is void of deficiencies, a love that reflects the very character and nature of God. But this is not something we can accomplish by simply gritting our teeth and mustering up as much will power as we can find. As well-intentioned as that may be, the truth is we cannot accomplish what is unnatural without that which is supernatural. We are in desperate need of an inward transformation if we hope to express Christ-like love as an outward demonstration. We need the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in us, if His love is going to flow out of us.
God does not call the Christian to hard love out of spite. Hard love gives us an opportunity to, in a small way, identify with Christ. When hard love costs us our pride, when hard love demands we tear down the wall we thought kept us safe from the enemy’s attack, when hard love causes us to sacrifice our place of comfortably and trade it for vulnerability, let us consider the sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus, and the price He paid in order that we may no longer live as enemies of the cross, but as friends of God.