The well-known quote, “love your neighbor as yourself,” is arguably just as popular outside Christian circles as it is in the Church. “Love your enemies” is a bit less popular, and a great deal more difficult to enact. Just how far do we have to go to love our enemies? The Bible actually has a phenomenal example, found in Psalm 35. This is a psalm I’ve had mixed feelings about. I enjoy much of it, but this particular part of it I’ve never really liked, and mainly because I have a great deal of difficulty praying it with any amount of honesty:
11 Malicious witnesses rise up;
they ask me of things that I do not know.
12 They repay me evil for good;
my soul is bereft.
13 But I, when they were sick—
I wore sackcloth;
I afflicted myself with fasting;
I prayed with head bowed on my chest.
14 I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother;
as one who laments his mother,
I bowed down in mourning.
What’s being said here is that the innocent psalmist mourns for his enemies when they suffer loss. Particularly, when they were sick he would fast and pray on their behalf that they would be well again. The following verses contrast their response to his times of sickness:
15 But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered;
they gathered together against me;
wretches whom I did not know
tore at me without ceasing;
16 like profane mockers at a feast,
they gnash at me with their teeth.
His enemies give him no love in return. Now that’s a lot easier to understand. Funny how the complaint sections of psalms are much easier to relate to than the protestations of innocence!
Who are our enemies today though? Osama bin Laden’s surviving lackeys? North Korea? Militant radical Muslisms? Anti-theist post-modernists? In a sense, yes, they do pose threats to our societies, beliefs, freedoms, and so on in some way. But what about the annoying dude who lives next door who always has parties when you’re trying to sleep, or the rude coworker who keeps dumping her rightful tasks onto you, or the creepy older person who stares at you awkwardly on the subway every day? In some ways it’s easier to pray for big issues like cultural evils, corrupt foreign governments, and terrorist organizations, because they’re more impersonal and distant. Most of us in the USA here are reasonably safe from most threats that those groups might pose, such that in the course of our day to day lives we stand to “suffer” more from the annoying people in our midst more than from more serious but far-off dangers.
By all means, we need to pray for big social ills and wicked organizations, I do not mean to downplay that. But, as Psalm 35 indicates, we have “enemies” who live around us and make our bad days worse. And furthermore, it’s not pray that they amend their ways, it’s prayer for their actual needs. The psalm used sickness as an example, but we could substitute any life issue in its place. The point is to pray for their well-being; that’s what loving our enemies looks like. As a couple of my friends have observed in the past year or two, praying for the same people regularly actually helps one love those people more. So if we pray for our enemies faithfully, it’s possible that they may seem less annoying over time, or that we’ll stop getting so agitated at their behavior, or God will start to reform their hearts.