“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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43–48 CSB)
One of Life magazine’s Pictures of the Year for 1996 depicts 18-year-old Keshia Thomas, an African American woman, using her body to shield a White man who had an SS tattoo and was wearing a Confederate t-shirt. She was at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to express her opposition to the rally. When she saw the man being kicked and beaten, Thomas threw her body between him and his attackers. When later asked why she did it, Thomas replied that she felt covered by God in the moment, and when one feels this way, you don’t ask questions; you just do what you are supposed to do.
Being a Klan supporter is a clear way to express being an enemy to a Black person. But in that moment, Thomas took to heart that strange command of Christ to “love your enemies.”
Of all the commands Jesus gives us, none seems so otherworldly and strange as this one. Utterly unnatural to human nature, it seems like such a hard thing, because it really is. But we have a model. God Himself sent His Son, and Jesus loved us while we were yet sinners, to the point of death for us.
As sinners, we were enemies of God, but that did not stop Christ’s love for us.
As sinners, we rebelled against His rule, but that did not cause God to hold back from making the treasures of heaven available to us.
As sinners, our natural tendency was to oppose God, but as Paul Washer said, “I have given God countless reasons not to love me. None of them has been strong enough to change Him.”
On the cross, one of Jesus’s last words before He breathed His last breath was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In that moment, Jesus asked God the Father to forgive the people who were crucifying Him. How amazing. In the moment Jesus is experiencing one of the most horrific and painful ways to die, His heart was so open and loving that He prayed on behalf of the ones killing Him.
Let us not miss the nature of the character God calls Christ-followers to display. God expects us to show enemy-love. This does not mean strained good works performed for people who make us uncomfortable, for people we dislike, or for people we have to tolerate. This means loving people who are in opposition to us. This kind of love is true love, which even involves sacrifice. Keshia Thomas showed this kind of love, a kind of love that reveals a power beyond us, a transformative power that can only come from One who is the source of love, One who actually can be called love itself.
“God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16b ESV).