Loving Those We Don’t Like

By Drew Narmour, Executive Director, YBL Jackson

One of the hardest sayings of Jesus is the command to, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). But who are these “enemies” and “persecutors?” It wasn’t hard to know who these were for the Israelites in ancient Egypt as the chariots of Pharoah are bearing down on them at the Red Sea. The Psalms are littered with David’s pleas to God for deliverance from his enemies, but again those enemies in view are often literal armies (Ps 22, 27:1-12, 59). Many in the early church were martyred by their enemies simply because of their beliefs about Jesus.

Thankfully, there is a very good chance none of us will be pursued by enemy government chariots or have our safety threatened because of our church attendance. Praise God. This command, however, will still test us. There are times when those we work with or work for will feel like our enemies. Even our spouses and children can seem like the biggest obstacles to our happiness in our worst moments. It may seem silly to compare a rude comment we overheard a co-worker say about us to the threat of death, but just because our egos are threatened instead of our bodies, does it make obeying this command that much easier?

How then do we obey such a difficult command? Years ago, I read “A Little Book on the Christian Life” by John Calvin and it left a lasting impression on me. There are few books I reread and even fewer that I read every year or so, but this is one of them. Calvin encourages us to do good to those we deem unworthy of such good by not regarding others according to their own merits, but to consider in them the image of God:

“You have no cause to evade anyone who stands before you and needs your service. Suppose he’s a stranger. The Lord, however, has stamped him with His own mark that’s familiar to you, and for that reason God forbids you to despise your own flesh. Suppose he is contemptible and worthless. The Lord, however, shows him to be one whom He has condescended to decorate with His own image. Suppose you owe him nothing for what he’s done. But God—to whom you know you are obligated because of His many wonderful benefits to you—puts Himself, as it were, in that person’s place. Suppose he is unworthy of even your smallest labors for his sake. But the image of God, according to which this person is commended to you, warrants your giving of yourself and your all. Supposing a man not only deserves nothing good from you, but he has also provoked you with injustices and injuries—even this is not just cause for you to stop embracing him with affection and fulfilling your duties of love to him. He has deserved, you might say, something much different from me. But what has the Lord deserved? When He orders you to forgive that man for whatever sin he has committed against you, He calls you to do so not because that man deserves it, but because God Himself has forgiven you (Luke 17:3–4).”[1]

Often people’s sinful habits so overshadow our perception of them that we cannot see anything other than the wrongs they have committed against us or others. But as Calvin says, “we must be sure not to dwell on the wickedness of men, but rather to consider the image of God in them. That image, concealing and obliterating their shortcomings, entices us by its beauty and dignity to love and welcome them.”[2]

[1] Calvin, John. 2017. A Little Book on the Christian Life. Translated by Burk Parsons, and Aaron C. Denlinger. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust. p. 39-41.

[2] Ibid, 42.