“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 hate you, that you may be sons 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 brothers, what are you doing more than others? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:43-48
When I was a child, one phrase we used to get even was, “Do me I do you, God no go vex”, broadly meaning we were allowed to exact vengeance and God wouldn’t be offended by that. To a childish and sinful mind, it felt so sweet. As I aged, I heard more nuanced ones: “Revenge is a meal best served cold”; “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. This disease of vindictiveness, of getting squared, ails both young and old alike. Then there are those old testament scriptures that permitted revenge:
“If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured” (Leviticus 24:17-20).
“But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:23-25).
As a new testament believer reading that, it feels cringy. But let’s face it, it appeals to human nature. The sheer amount of violence in the world today is a testament to that. Christians who have received unconditional forgiveness of sins are not exempt from it. It has always struck me that even while the old testament permissions to exact revenge subsisted, there were men like Joseph, who though hated by his brothers, lived by a different creed: he forgave them and showed them kindness. David wouldn’t harm Saul when he had the opportunity to do so, even when urged on by his lieutenants: “This is the day the LORD spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish’” (1 Samuel 24:4). They quoted the word of God to him but he didn’t respond in kind to Saul’s continuing hatred. A non-Christian is reported to have said, “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”
Then comes Jesus, God’s exact representation, by whom he has spoken to us in these last days, and he disrupts the old order of things, sets aside the former law and introduces the one we have above as our key text. He says to “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you.” That, in a nutshell, is how to treat those who don’t like you. How humanly counterintuitive! That command goes against the very heart of the human heart. And let’s not pretend that it is the easiest thing to do. But that it has been commanded means it is doable. Christ himself suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. In this question of how to respond to hate, he exemplified it for us at the point where he was subjected to the vilest act of hatred. On the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He didn’t place a burden on us that he wouldn’t lift with his finger; he walked his talk. It is worth emphasizing: The best way to treat those who don’t like you is to pray for them! We have an example to follow.
There are some who come across such instructions and say, “Well, that is Jesus. He is God. Easy to do.” Remember that he was fully human when he said that prayer. Later we find a man subject to like passions as we are, someone called Stephen, do the same thing. While being stoned for speaking about Jesus, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then, as if he just remembered that there was an example Christ left that he (Stephen) couldn’t die without following, that Christian martyr prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7). Selah! If Stephen did it, you too can. You may struggle to do this, but you should anyway. God’s grace is available to help you do so. It is one of the reasons why Romans 12:2 is very important in a believer’s life following conversion: “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Old ways of thinking you must pay back in the same coin have to be replaced by the way of Jesus: praying for those who hate you. Notice what was the content of the prayers of Jesus and Stephen. It wasn’t that thunder would strike their enemies, but that God would not hold their sins against them. Where would any of us be without forgiveness? You too must forgive those who hate you and pray for their welfare.
But praying is not the only way to respond. In Romans 12:20, the Bible says, “On the contrary: ‘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.’” Act against the very instinct to be unkind to those who hate you; do the exact opposite of what the unregenerate mind would do: If they are hungry, go buy them lunch; if they are thirsty, give them a drink. One of the things that happens when you don’t watch, is that you also develop a feeling of hate towards the person who (you sometimes even only suspect without substance) hates you. One way to melt that hatred is to go against your base instincts and treat that person kindly. Do that and find that instead of evil getting the best of you, you get the best of it by doing good.
There is no guarantee that when you pray for, and do good to, the hater they will become your lover, but that is beside the point. Your goal is to show your sonship of God. Jesus said you should do this so “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” It means that in doing so, you show yourself to be a child of God, for he causes the sun to shine and the rains to fall on saint and sinner alike. This is one area that distinguishes God’s children from those who are not. Jesus asked, “And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” “If you are friendly only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even the heathen do that.” The call to the Christian life is a call to be different; to operate by a higher bar. Your righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
You need to arm yourself with the above truths because you will need them. First, this world is fallen and fallen human nature will hate (Titus 3:3). Jesus himself said, “All men will hate you because of me” (Luke 21:17). That is scripture and it cannot be broken, so get ready to be hated! “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” said Jesus in John 15:18. Stop acting surprised when hated for his sake: “Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you” (1John 3:13). A cliché says, “Hater’s gonna hate!” You just ensure that you aren’t being hated for doing wrong.
Putting it all together, know that the world hated Jesus so it will hate you. There doesn’t have to be a reason. For starters, a servant cannot be greater than his master, so expect nothing less. When you are faced with hatred, see it as an opportunity to show that you are the child of your heavenly father. He is kind to “the good and bad, the nice and nasty.” Prove that by praying for the hater(s) and showing them acts of kindness.