I grew up watching those old black and white Westerns—the kind where the bad guys wore the black hats and the good guys wore white hats, and you always knew which one was which. Those were the days of heroes. The good guys were good and the bad guys were bad.
But movies changed with the advent of color. What you thought was a black hat turns out to actually be royal blue. What you thought was a white hat is actually bright yellow. And the gray dress that the leading wore—it's a red dress after all. Does that distort the way you see her? It may, if you understand color symbolism at all. The fact is that color changes everything. Red dresses mean something, don't they? And if the hero turns yellow, what does that say about him? And what about a royal color worn by the "bad guys?" Now we're all confused, aren't we?
Modern writing recognizes that real human beings are more complicated than the flat characters of black-and-white Westerns. Modern movies are more apt to reveal both a hero’s flaws and a bad guy’s conflicted emotions. Good guys aren’t all good, and nobody is completely bad. The anti-hero has emerged in literature and in movies, realistically revealing the internal struggles experienced by all good guys and bad guys.
But that’s not the way we see it—at least not in our own lives. We tend to group people into categories of “good” and “bad.” And, of course, we’re the ones wearing the white hats. It’s impossible that we might be the bad guys, isn’t it? And, since we’re the good guys, then the ones who oppose us—let’s call them “enemies”—they must surely be all bad.
Of course, we have good reason for perceiving people as bad when they appear to us as threats. Some of our enemies threaten our physical safety. Terrorist organizations like ISIS and nations like North Korea appear at the top of our lists, while certain individuals may come to your own mind. Then other enemies threaten relationships. While they are no physical danger, they mistreat or mislead the ones you love. You may feel your place has been usurped in a friendship or marriage. Perhaps your younger teenager is hanging out with a new bunch of friends, and you’re having a difficult time dealing with the fact that as a parent you are no longer the primary influence in his life. All these can qualify as enemies if they make you feel defensive.
Your enemy might not be a physical or relationship threat, yet they challenge your ideologies in a way that makes you angry. Maybe they have a different morality from you, and you’re concerned about the influence they will have on your grandchildren, or on society as a whole. Ideological enemies might have different politics than you, or a different biblical interpretation from you. They make you feel uneasy because, if you’re honest with yourself, you just don’t know how you might handle the shift if you were to find out that they were right and you were wrong. (And, of course, you’re positive that you’re right.)
Financial enemies might be the people who moved in next door to you, who have those loud parties at night, and who throw trash around their yard. Because they let their house get run down, it brings down the property value of the whole neighborhood. Maybe they’re even willing to work the same job for less money than you, or maybe they don’t work at all, so you see them as a threat to your financial security. This makes you feel selfish in your dealings with them.
Defensive, angry, selfish—the list goes on and on. An enemy is someone who brings out the negative in you. When you cry out for justice, what you really mean is revenge. They make you rage. They make you want to launch a preemptive strike against them. Get them before they get you.
But is this God’s way?
In Luke chapter 6, Jesus gives a different strategy for dealing with enemies. He tells us to love them and pray for them. Bless them, do good to them, and even yield to them. Give to them. Lend to them, expecting nothing back in return. In short he said, “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you (6:31 NASB[i]).” We call this the “Golden Rule.” You see, Christians are supposed to be different. We’re not supposed to act like the rest of the world, which cries out for an eye for an eye. Instead of a preemptive strike of violence or hatred or manipulation, why not try a preemptive strike of love?
You might say, “You just don’t understand who I have to deal with. This person is just plain evil!” Yet Jesus says that the Father is “kind to ungrateful and evil men (6:35b).” Christians are supposed to be like Christ—it’s just that simple. Jesus says that in response to people like this you should “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (6:36).” You may insist that these people are horribly sinful, and deserve judgment or punishment. But the Bible says, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” This includes you, too. The more you insist on judgment and punishment for them, the more you insist on it for yourself, because you’re no less a sinner than they are. It’s so much better to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12).” In Luke 6:37-38, Jesus says:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.”
This means that God will use the same measure to judge you that you have used to judge others. God will use the same measure to punish you that you have used to punish others. So, even if you’re thinking selfishly then you should know that treating your enemies with love is just spiritual self-preservation.
So be good to your enemies—and not so that you can transform them, but so that you can change your own heart towards them. One mistaken way that Christians often “love” “sinners” is that we forgive and accept them as long as they change their ways and become “like us.” We tell them that God will love them if only they will stop being—well, them. We make public statements about how bad they are just so that no one will mistakenly believe that we actually approve of them. We want them to know just how bad they are so that they will want to be like us. But why would they want to be like us if we’re going to be like that? Which is worse, their sin—or your judgment and treatment of them because of their sin? How are you any less of a sinner than they? Maybe it’s your heart that needs to change, before they’re ready to change theirs in response to you. In Luke 6:39b, 41-42, Jesus says:
“A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?...Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.
Jesus says there are a lot of Christians who are locked in a blinding sin of judgment of our neighbors, labeling them as “bad guys” when they’re really just “guys” who are struggling the same way that we are. Who is worse—the one who is honest about the speck that she has in her eye, or the Christian who denies the log that he has in his own, all the while trying to make the speck-eyed person more like himself? Why would she want to be like him?
When it comes to our enemies, our goal is not to destroy them by violence or hatred, or even by making them “fix themselves” and become like us. Abraham Lincoln had it right when he said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” In other words, don’t change them—change yourself by praying for them and doing good things for them until your attitude toward them has become like Christ’s. God wants to help you stop seeing people as if they’re characters in an old black-and-white Western. He wants to open your eyes and help you see in vibrant color, to understand that your friends and your enemies are deeper human beings than you once imagined. Instead of pointing your finger in judgment, open your arms in acceptance and friendship. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (6:36).” And the Father of mercy will have mercy on you as well.