A couple of weeks ago in our mid-week Bible study we were wrestling with Jesus’ instruction in Mt 5:44 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It needed to be said because of a misunderstanding and misapplication of Lev. 19:18 which includes the words, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Reading the rest of that verse, and looking at it with squinty eyes, you can make it say, as the Pharisees and scribes did (wrongly), “love your neighbour and hate your enemies” (Mt 5:43).
Well and good: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Go to it!
But what about verses like Psalm 139:21,22:
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Was David just wrong? Did he need to be corrected? Is this simply down to the fact that this is an Old Testament verse and we are New Testament Christians (i.e. we can safely ignore David)?
The answer is none of these. Our problem with these verses is a problem with us – a very modern problem. We think of love and hate as opposites and mutually exclusive. That is, one cannot both love and hate someone at the same time.
Really? Think of this example: a mother who is at her wits end because her teenage son has become an out of control nightmare to the family, to his school, and commits crimes against society. She hates what he has become. She even believes he needs to bear the due consequences under the law of his crimes. She hates what he has become – she hates him as he is. Yet she loves him with an undying mother’s love and wishes something much better for him.
This expresses something of how a Christian is to love his/her enemies. We may hate our enemies in the sense that we hate their lives, what they have become, what priorities they set for themselves, what really drives them. Yet we love them, because we want something better for them – we want them to know fellowship with God, which can only come through Jesus Christ. Therefore, we do them good, we serve them, we seek to share our lives and the gospel with them, we pray for them and their salvation.
If you think this is an odd thing to say, consider this: God both loved and hated at the same time. A quotation from Augustine:
God’s love is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son—before we became anything at all.
The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Rom. 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness.
Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.
– Augustine on John’s Gospel, quoted in Calvin’s Institutes II.xvi.4 (emphasis mine)
Love and hate are complicated things! We live in a cultural moment where love and hate are considered mutually exclusive: #lovewins, ‘love not hate’ etc. The concepts are truncated and superficial in our society. Society will not benefit from those. We must not imbibe such thinking. Instead Christians need to plumb the depths of rich biblical teaching and understand the mind of God. In that way Christian society (should I say, fellowship?) will be richer, and the world will benefit from our presence as we love it and tell of his grace in Christ.