Can we really love our enemies?

Jesus makes plain that he is calling on us to practice the kind of universal love that God expresses.

Originally published for the Christian Science Sentinel online on February 8, 2023

The world seems to be filled with good guys and bad guys. The good guys, of course, are those who agree with us; the bad guys are those who don’t. From the viewpoint of an us-versus-them mentality, those on our side are seen as friends and allies, and those on the other side as opponents, sometimes enemies.

And then there are those who are doing things that are harmful to us or to others—those who, in Christ Jesus’ words, “curse you, . . . hate you, and . . . despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

So how should we deal with those who oppose us? That’s a question addressed in an essay called “Love Your Enemies” by Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science. She begins by asking: “Who is thine enemy that thou shouldst love him? Is it a creature or a thing outside thine own creation?” (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 8). The essay goes on to say that we create our own enemies by how we think about people. We believe the enemy is “out there”—that he, she, or they have some kind of objective existence that can harm us. The essay makes it clear that, instead, the enemy exists only in our perception.

On a local, national, and international level, we are presented with all kinds of messaging about a wide variety of “bad guys.” Problems are explained as the result of the actions of someone or some group whom we can blame for the difficulties.

We believe the enemy is “out there,” whereas the enemy exists only in our perception.

But there’s a problem if we go along with that reasoning. In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ Jesus commands us to love our enemies. It is not a question of choice or of waiting for the right conditions. He says loud and clear, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Jesus makes plain that it is not the reciprocal love among family and friends that he is calling on us to practice but the kind of universal love that God expresses. He notes that our heavenly Father “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

How do we love with such impartiality? As Eddy points out, it is not necessary for us to love a sinning human being. That would be to condone his or her belligerence or deceit. To solve this problem, we must recognize the distinction between the information coming to us from the material senses and the truth coming from spiritual sense. 

The material senses convey images of material or wrongful conditions—of deceit, death, and destruction—with indications of exactly who the “bad guy” is. But these are not pictures of the world as God, Spirit, created it. They are false impressions produced by a supposed mentality apart from God, who is the one divine Mind. To get the true picture of reality, we must rely on spiritual sense—the capacity each of us has to be conscious of God, good, and God’s perfect, spiritual creation. 

The infinite, divine Mind expresses its goodness in man through what might be called Godlike qualities, such as integrity, generosity, compassion, truthfulness, and so forth. These divine attributes form the true identity of each of us as God’s creation.

Christian Science shows us that we have a choice about the kind of information we are going to accept about ourselves and others: the material sense of humanity as selfish, dishonest, unjust, and capable of evil, or the spiritual sense of man as God’s creation—intelligent, loving, just, pure, and capable of good only. 

I had to make just such a choice many years ago when I was working with young Black and white students on a project designed to overcome racism. My friends and I needed city approval for several parts of this project, but we found ourselves opposed by a city official who seemed to take pride in preventing the project from seeing the light of day. He even made statements that were clearly racist. My initial, knee-jerk reaction was to identify this individual as our prime enemy. 

I prayed for God’s guidance and was led to study the essay “Love Your Enemies.” But I just couldn’t get my thought around that idea that I was creating my own enemies. This guy sure sounded and acted like our very real enemy. At that point a good friend, noticing that I was stumbling badly in my efforts to love this enemy, made a recommendation related to the practice of healing at the heart of Christian Science: He encouraged me to imagine that this city council member had asked me to pray for him about a serious problem he was having.

Our goal is to lift thought to the contemplation of man as God’s spiritual image and likeness. 

I had a sudden flash of illumination. Of course! If this man were to ask me to pray for him, I would immediately throw out the picture of him as a mortal suffering from some kind of material problem. Instead, I would cherish those spiritual qualities that I knew were his as a child of God, a being I couldn’t help but love. 

Now it made sense to discard my self-created enemy and value his true, Godlike identity. It came to me to invite him to attend one of our project’s activities. He was hesitant, but finally accepted. Initially, he was clearly ill at ease, but he gradually let down his guard and participated fully. 

That was the beginning of a genuinely supportive relationship. We next had a difficult zoning issue with the city, but our new city council defender resolved it for us seamlessly. This was a conflict that had a happy ending: A lasting friendship was forged.

Loving one’s enemies can present serious challenges, and I haven’t always been successful in seeing through false character traits to the divine identity that is there instead. But “Love your enemies” states that if we stumble—fail to recognize as a lie the notion that we have a real enemy—we “shall rise again, stronger than before the stumble. The good cannot lose their God, their help in times of trouble” (p. 10).

Our goal isn’t to love people as flawed human beings but to lift thought to the contemplation of man as God’s spiritual image and likeness. When we are able to see from this new, true perspective, it’s easy and natural to love even our enemies impartially and universally. Learning to love this way has not only helped me successfully resolve many issues but has been one of the most uplifting and transforming lessons of my life.

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