Loving Those We Dislike
[Originally published in The Fort Bend Herald]
One of the most difficult concepts of Christianity involves a series of commands that relegate us to love pretty much everyone, everywhere and in every situation. While the sentiment of that seems truly noble and altruistic, many find themselves in a very difficult crisis of faith for the simple fact that there are some people we honestly find very hard to like. “Liking” involves commonality in thought or position. It involves someone we consider compatible and worthy. It involves reciprocity. Indeed, all of us have those around us of whom these traits simply do not exist. We simply do not “like” everyone. How, then, are we to love them?
The first order is to confirm the need for such indiscriminating love in the scriptures. Indeed, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor (Mt 22:39). The apostles teach us to love one another in the church (Rom 12:10) and our spouses (Eph 5:25). These emanations of love seem easy enough to fulfill; or at least a realistic goal to shoot at- until we realize that even these two commands come with caveats: Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves, and Paul instructed husbands to love their wives as their own bodies.
But wait: it gets worse, for Jesus further said that we should love even our enemies! (Mat 5:43-44) This instruction, he follows with, “For if you love those who love you… do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (v. 46)
Now the sentiment is getting downright troublesome. Let’s face it, it’s hard at times to love even those people we share Thanksgiving Dinner with – let alone those who have earned the moniker of “enemy.” For all practical purposes, the very definition of “an enemy” is someone that in the very least we do not like at all. How, then, are we to love those we (sometimes for good reason) simply do not like?
The bad news is this is not an easy pursuit, even when properly understood. The good news is most of us have completely misunderstood this set of commands because of language issues.
“Love,” in English is an extremely flexible term. We love our spouses and we love our dog. (Surely those two do not mean the same thing.) We love certain forms of art. We love chicken fried steak and we love our children. Each of these things gets coined as “that which we love” but with significantly distinct meanings and inferences that actually separate this idea of “love” into numerous categorically different things altogether.
In the New Testament there are two different Greek terms translated into English as “love.” One term is the term most similar to that “love” we claim for our families and friends. The other is a sense of the idea of “love” that frankly, we do not use very often in conversational English. (There is no Greek equivalent to our love for chicken fried steak to my knowledge… that must be an English thing.)
The lesser used term for “love” in the NT (about 20 times) is phileo (phil-eh’-oh); often referred to as “brotherly love.” Such is the namesake for the city of Philadelphia and various other English terms with the “phile” suffix. This term is best understood as “relational” love. It is that “I love you because you and I have a personal connection.” This term best fits with our love of family and friends, because it is reciprocal: the love we have for those we “like.” Most of us are thinking of THIS type of love when we hear the command to “love your enemies.” But, relax – that is not the command we have been given.
The second and far more common “love” in the NT (over 250 times) is agape (ah-gah’-pay) (n) or agapao (ah-ga-pah’-o) (v). This is (potentially) unreciprocated love. It is a love that is chosen, deliberate and service oriented; but not necessarily relational. To love in this manner is tantamount to Jesus’ golden rule: to treat others as we wish to be treated. This is the love we are administering when we give money to help feed or clothe total strangers. It is the love we are sharing when we stop to help a stranger on the side of the road. These are not reciprocal actions: I’m not helping because I realized that was a friend of mine I just passed on the highway. These are chosen, deliberate acts of service to others out of reverence for their creator and recognition of their need.
While both types of love are commanded in scripture in various scenarios, we are ten times more often commanded to agapao those around us: love through service and with potentially nothing gained in return. THIS is the love we are commanded to give our enemies. We are to value them as human beings and provide them with dignity and service when able. We should help them when in need. We should speak kindly and act compassionately even if they are our political enemies or are on the “other side” of the culture war. It is this love that God demonstrated toward us in that he loved us while we were his enemies (Rom 5:8). In the same manner, we are to love our enemies; even if we don’t happen to like them.
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