12 How does loving one’s enemies work, really? - Elizabeth Scalia

posted Jan 9, 2019, 8:48 AM by Neil D'Souza   [ updated Jan 9, 2019, 8:49 AM ]
A friend of mine and I were comparing notes on how challenged we feel, sometimes, to offer real forgiveness to friends and family, and the question of enemies.

"Jesus said we are to forgive without limit," my friend said, "but does that mean we're supposed to keep putting ourselves out there to be victimised by people who really know how to hurt us, and seem to enjoy doing it?"

It's a conundrum, isn't it? We are supposed to love everyone, forgive "unto seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22), and we know that forgiveness is essential to our spiritual health, even if—in some cases—some people just feel like they prefer the tormentor's role in our personal narratives. "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you," writes the theologian Lewis Smedes, and he's completely right.

Loving everyone is downright difficult, and none of us can do it perfectly, except the Lord and those saints He has so graced. My friend and I acknowledged it, but she couldn't let it go, and wondered, "Doesn't that mean the person we're avoiding is our enemy? Aren't we not supposed to have enemies?"

Her question reminded me of a what a Benedictine nun says to a novice in Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede: "We may quarrel, we may find ourselves going down another staircase to avoid meeting some particular nun, but in times of stress…[we are all there for one another.]"

That, it seems to me, is the essence of how we are to handle difficult relationships. It speaks of a charity that does not put people too frequently in each other's way (and tempt them into needless, unhappy exchanges), yet is still helpful, when help is really needed, and without resentment or a desire for recognition. It puts enmity to the side for the sake of the greater good.

When I was a little girl, I used to take some comfort from Jesus' command to "love your enemies"; the fact that He used the word "enemies" seemed like a clear acknowledgment that they exist, and are a normal part of life. It almost seemed like Jesus was giving us tacit permission to have enemies, to make a place for enemies within our lives, as though they could be compartmentalized and shoved into an unused storage portion of our soul. When someone explained that "loving one's enemies" meant little more than "not wishing them ill," I felt like I had figured it all out: I could have my enemies, and as long as I didn't actually wish evil on them, I was set for heaven.