What Does Love Our Enemies Mean?

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, Loving Our Enemies


What does it mean to love your enemies? How does this look in modern life?

Response (staff answer):

This is a very important question, especially in light of today’s national and global political climate. So, we’ll examine different aspects of this issue throughout the up-coming months.

In our global community, we can’t afford not to love our enemies. This doesn’t mean we have to love what they do, or even what they stand for. But if we ever want to make our world, even our own homes and communities, a better place, love is the answer. Why? Fear is almost always at the root of enmity, and the antidote is love: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18 NKJV).

We love enemies 1) for our own sake so that we don’t feel hate in our own hearts, so we get rid of the feeling of enmity; 2) so we feel safe. Enemies make us feel unsafe; they create fear. We don’t want to live in fear; we want to live in love. So how do we go about loving “enemies”?

We’ll start by looking at the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Esau traded his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil stew (Gen 25:29-34). Later, Jacob colluded with his mother to trick his father, Isaac, to get the blessing of the firstborn, which Isaac was going to give to Esau (Gen 27). So, Esau wanted to kill Jacob, and Jacob had to flee for his life (Gen 28).

Twenty years later, when Jacob heard the message from God to go back home (Gen 31), we can only imagine what Jacob must have been feeling—fear, guilt, self-condemnation, even more fear…. Presumably, his brother was still there and still wanted to kill him. But Jacob followed God’s command, regardless of fear. He didn’t let fear paralyze him.

He did do a lot of preparation, however. He didn’t just go up to Esau and say, “Hi there, buddy!” He sent messengers ahead to assess the situation. They came back, telling him Esau was coming with 400 men, so “Jacob was greatly afraid, and distressed” (Gen 32:7 NRSV). More fear and more courage. Preparing for the worst, he positioned his family into two camps so that if Esau got one camp, the other one would escape. It made logical sense. Jacob also sent at least three groups ahead with animals and gifts as a way of mitigating Esau’s anger, of announcing his desire for peaceful reconciliation, perhaps of a way of asking for forgiveness and mercy. He was paving the way for amelioration.

And Jacob prayed. Boy, did he pray. He prayed for himself; he prayed for his family:

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ … Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’” (Gen 32: 9, 11, 12 NRSV)

So the night before he met Esau, after he had sent his two wives and their families across the river for their safety and was totally alone with God, Jacob’s prayer turned into a wrestling match with that man/angel—not an easy thing, especially when his hip was put out of joint (32:22-32). But it was also a life-transforming incident. Someone had to see the situation from God’s vantage point. Someone had to forgive. Someone had to reach out. Jacob answered the call.

He was persistent. Jacob refused to be bullied or scared away from doing what God had told him to do—go home. He also refused to let go until he got a blessing, until he saw his own nature differently, and his nature was transformed—because he saw God “face to face” (Gen 32:30). And once he saw God face-to-face, he was able to see his brother differently.

When they met graciously and lovingly, Jacob was able to say to Esau, “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me” (Gen 33:10 NKJV). What a complete transformation of two individuals (small-scale), which impacted and an entire situation and people (large-scale)!

Now, the real healing or transformation occurred before Jacob met Esau, as a result of that prayerful wrestling match, when Jacob was able to rise above the terror that he was feeling about the impending meeting. It certainly wasn’t easy for Jacob to conquer fear, hate, envy, and most likely guilt and self-condemnation. But he did. He forgave himself and his brother. And the rift that had been there for at least 20 years, the animosity they had engendered, vanished over night, and they resumed normal relations. Face-to-face!

It was an image thing: Jacob understood what it meant to be made in God’s image, to reflect God’s likeness. And it wasn’t just he who was made that way; his brother was God’s image, too. Jacob forgave and loved for himself, for his family. As a result, he lost an enemy and regained a brother. He also prevented fraternal warfare.

So this month, let’s focus on the image we have of ourselves and others. Let’s rise above fear and hate. How do we see ourselves? How do we see others? Have we created enemies? How do we see those who call themselves our enemies? Let’s work to get to the point where we see ourselves and others as if we’re looking at God’s face. That’s what Jacob learned to do. And it seems highly essential in today’s polarized world that we learn to do the same thing. So to counteract fear and hate, each time we look at someone, let’s see the face of God. There’s only love there. And that’s a very good place to start.