Why Does Jesus Tell Us to Love Our Enemies?

Sam Larrabee • 9 minutes

Is there someone you know that you can’t stand? Maybe it’s someone who’s wronged you repeatedly with their words or actions. Or maybe it’s a person you see every day who always seems to know how to get on your nerves. These are challenges we all face at some point in our lives.

If we’re being honest, these are the people we tend to do our best to avoid and ignore. We don’t like them, and, if our dislike is strong enough, we may even consider them our enemy.

And then we read these uncomfortable words of Jesus:

“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.” Matthew 5:43-44 NIV

Maybe when you read these words, you feel a bit stuck. You want to follow Jesus, but you don’t know if you can let go of the resentment, anger, or annoyance they make you feel. 

In this article, we’ll dive into why Jesus tells us to love our enemies, what it means to love our enemies, and how loving our enemies can help us grow closer to God.

Key Takeaways

  • God doesn’t call us to get back at people or seek revenge. Instead, He calls us to grow in compassion, empathy, and respect.
  • God loves us, and He loves our enemies too. Hating our enemies causes us to miss out on God’s calling for our lives.
  • Jesus chose to care for His enemies rather than judge them. So when we love our enemies, we get to be more like Jesus.
  • We love our enemies by believing they can change, caring for them when they’re hurting, praying for their growth, and celebrating when they experience good.

Who Is My Enemy?

It’s easy to feel bitterness and anger toward people who hurt us. Maybe they spread a nasty rumor, embarrassed us, or took something from us.

We might not call them our enemy, but we definitely don’t like them. So we do our best to avoid them, and we get annoyed when good things happen to them. We might even fantasize about getting back at them.

Notice how I keep using the word them. When we have an enemy, we have an unhealthy level of focus on them. Their actions, their words, and their choices. Having an enemy is a full-time job—it costs us a lot of emotional and mental energy. That’s one reason that Jesus wants us to love our enemies: Living with a constant focus on them distracts us from working on ourselves. Here’s what I mean.

Jesus Invites Us to Change Our Focus

One day, a crowd dragged a woman to Jesus. She’d been caught in the act of adultery, and the crowd wanted her to be punished. But first, they brought her to Jesus. Certain leaders wanted to see how Jesus would handle the situation.

The leaders considered the woman their “enemy.” She had sinned, and her sin had caused the leaders to dismiss her worth and see her as less than human. In their minds, her sin corrupted their community, so they thought the world would be better without her.

The men around her had all picked up stones, and were ready to throw them at their enemy until she died.

So, what did Jesus do? He said:

“… let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” John 8:7 NLT

All of the men walked away, leaving the woman alone with Jesus. Remember, Jesus never sinned—so He could have thrown a stone at her—but instead, He said this:

… “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” John 8:10-11 NLT

Us and Them

In the same way we can focus on them, the crowd was focused on her. She did wrong, she hurt others, and she deserves to pay. And how did Jesus respond? By inviting the crowd, with one simple sentence, to change their focus from her to themselves.

Once Jesus changed their focus, they began to reflect on their own lives. Maybe some of the crowd thought about the people they’d hurt in the past who forgave them. And some of them might have reflected on how God had forgiven them. As they thought, some may have begun to stop seeing her as an enemy, and start relating to her as a fellow flawed person.

We don’t know what went through all of their minds. But we do know that they all let go of their need to punish her.

We’re Not Making Excuses

Let’s be clear, we’re not saying, “Everyone makes mistakes, so just get over whatever they did or said.” The person you dislike may have made some extremely hurtful choices. Jesus didn’t excuse the woman’s actions. They were wrong and hurtful. So we’re not trying to excuse what they did either.

Instead, Jesus is inviting you to shift your focus from them to yourself. You can’t force someone to change their personality, show remorse, or take back their actions. But you can gain empathy, grow in compassion, and begin to see the humanity in your enemies.

What Happens When We Don’t Love our Enemies?

The book of Jonah is a case study on how to not love your enemies. Here’s a quick summary of the story.

Jonah is called by God to give a message to a neighboring city—Nineveh. God wants Nineveh to know that He’s angry with how they treat others, so He’s going to overthrow the city. On the surface, it seems like a violent threat, but Jonah knows better.

Jonah knows God loves everyone—including His enemies. This is a problem for Jonah, because he hates Nineveh and doesn’t want them to experience God’s love. So Jonah runs from God.

God doesn’t let Jonah run away for long, and works hard to get Jonah to Nineveh. But when Jonah eventually does show up, he gives a different message. He simply tells everyone “God is going to destroy the city!” 

Then, Jonah goes up on a hill overlooking the city, hoping to get a good view of God destroying it. But the people in the city repent, turn from evil, and worship God.

Jonah isn’t pleased. The book ends with God asking Jonah:

“But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” Jonah 4:11 NLT

The Cost of Hating our Enemies

Jonah’s story ends with Him being angry at God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy.

The people of Nineveh had done evil. But God loves to give people second, third, thirty-third, and one hundred and fifty-seventh chances. It’s who He is. He loves to forgive.

Jonah wanted God to be for him and against them. But God sees things differently. He loves everyone and calls us to love everyone too. He’s building a global family, and He wants to include you and your enemies.

Jonah ended the story full of hate for his enemies, and where did that lead him? Resentment, loneliness, despair, and an inability to fulfill his purpose. That’s the cost of hating our enemies.

When we hate our enemies, we end up stuck on the outside of God’s plan for the world. Why? Because God’s plan for the world rests on the forgiveness of enemies.

We Were All Enemies of God

It might sound extreme, but we used to be enemies of God. All of us.

For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. Romans 5:10-11 NLT

But how were we God’s enemies? Well, think about God’s plan for the world. He wants to make Earth more like heaven through acts of generosity, kindness, and service. But, if you’re like me, you’ve probably used hurtful words and made selfish choices. When we do those things, we make earth less like heaven, making us enemies of God. And how did God love His enemies? He showed up in person—not to condemn us—but to show us a better way to live.

Remember the woman caught in adultery? That’s all of our stories. We failed and deserved punishment, but, at the feet of Jesus, we received love and an invitation to a new life.

We Follow Jesus’ Lead

Let’s get back to you.

Who is the person you can’t stand? They did something hurtful, or found some other way to get on your bad side. You can’t change what they did, and holding on to hate will only cause you more harm.

The things they did might even mean you shouldn’t be around them anymore. You deserve to be treated with respect, so sometimes the actions of others require us to set boundaries and love people from a distance.

But we can’t change the past, and we can’t force someone to change. So, what do we do? We look to Jesus.

While we were still enemies of God, He came to us in the form of Jesus. When He was criticized and misunderstood, He kept giving people chances for a fresh start. When His best friends let Him down, He chose to trust them again. And when He was abused, humiliated, and hung on a cross, these are the words He said to God about His executioners:

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” … Luke 23:34 NIV

Jesus forgave His enemies because He loved them and wanted the best for them. Even though they hurt Him with indescribable cruelty, He still saw their potential for redemption.

How Do I Start Loving My Enemies?

Loving your enemies isn’t easy. In fact, it might be one of the most difficult things God calls us to do—but it’s an essential quality for every follower of Jesus.

So, how do you start? Well, every situation looks different, so it might be helpful for you to seek guidance from a pastor or close friend.

And, let’s remember that Jesus doesn’t call us to become best friends with our enemies. He calls us to love them. Love is sacrificial care for someone else. We love our enemies by believing they can change, caring for them when they’re hurting, praying for their growth, and celebrating when they experience something good.

Still, it’s not always easy, so when you feel the urge to hate, judge, or daydream of ways you can get back at your enemies, reflect on these truths:

  • Your enemy is a person with gifts, talents, and flaws.
  • God loves your enemy and made them with a plan and purpose.
  • Even the worst people have the potential to change.
  • God loved us, even when we were His enemies.
  • Jesus chose forgiveness over revenge.

Will You Choose a Better Story?

So, how will you respond? Will you continue to believe the worst of your enemy—that they can’t change and don’t deserve love? Or will you take the much more difficult path of following Jesus? Learning to love your enemies is a process—so start today. Don’t let your story end like Jonah’s, or the crowd around the woman caught in adultery. Instead, choose to open yourself up to the possibility of loving your enemy.

Take the first step today by praying this simple prayer:

Dear God, thank You for forgiving me, even when I was Your enemy. I don’t know how to start loving my enemy, but I know I don’t want to keep living with bitterness and anger. Please help me to start seeing my enemies the way You do—as people with the potential for good. And help me to learn how to love my enemies. In Jesus’ name, amen.