But all this talk of enemies! A hundred or so references to them in the 150 Psalms. The psalmist is surrounded by them, oppressed by them, persecuted and gloated over and mocked by them, ignored by them. He begs God to scatter them, destroy them, crush their heads, make them lick the dust.
Who in the world prays such prayers? Who in the world, for that matter, has so many enemies? The only enemies I could remember having had in my life thus far were the girls in my seventh grade home ec class who cut up the culottes I had just about finished sewing, and I had ended up being best friends with their ringleader a year later. Don’t people grow out of having enemies, once they grow up? Not a single adult I knew was plagued by enemies—certainly not an enemy like old crazy Saul was to David. Soldiers maybe were, but I didn’t really know anyone in the military. I decided that the days of David and Saul were past, at least for ordinary non-militants like me.
Many years after that first Bible read-through, though, I ended up seriously on the wrong side of most of my colleagues over a matter of an invited speaker. I won’t bore you (and possibly het myself up) with the details. Suffice it to say that my concept of being surrounded by enemies changed that semester, as did my understanding of the word enemy.
An enemy, I discovered, was not some crazy aggressor who inexplicably had it in for me, some enemy combatant I could depersonalize with some curse-name, but a former friend or well-wisher that I was on the outs with. Someone, in other words, that I was in conflict with. And God knows I’m surrounded by such everyday: colleagues, bosses, friends or siblings who’re upset with me or with whom I'm upset, my church pastor maybe, my daughters, my husband. Name a person in some way related to me, and that person has probably been my enemy at one time or another.
So I arrive at the culmination of Jesus’ little treatise on anger: Not only is calling someone an idiot a serious sin, not only should you offer your other cheek to someone who slaps you and give those who sue you even more than they ask for, but, in general, you should “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NIV).
Having come to a more relevant understanding of the word enemy than what I started out with, I believe what Jesus is saying we should do here is both a smaller and a more difficult enterprise than it might at first seem. To be perfect, to be God-like—which, in the next breath (Matthew 5:48), Jesus calls us all to be—we need to operate out of love by seeking reconciliation always. Not with some impersonal enemy that we probably won’t ever have but with the enemies who surround us all: the adversaries we daily make of those around us.
Even when we’re legitimately upset. Even when we feel wronged. Even when—especially when—we know we’re in the right.
(I’ve written a lot more on this topic, in case anyone’s interested, in my new book, The Easy Burden of Pleasing God.)