A living lesson in loving our enemies

A Canadian pastor shares her story about a recent trip to Lebanon - Part 2

Jesus said this:

“You have heard that it was said: love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)

Well now.

No one can say that Jesus made things easy!

Sometimes in my life I have been forced to put this into practice. For example, there was a certain well known pastor that recently led a big church congregation and had a lot to say about women ministers – like that we were the worst.

And, also that women who weren’t stay at home moms were maligning the word of God. This guy didn’t know it, but he was my enemy. After finding myself ranting about him one too many times, I realized Jesus had already told me what to do: I was supposed to love him and pray for him.

Super annoying.

Loving him was challenging since he had no idea who I was and we lived several thousand kilometres apart, but I did start praying for him. Begrudgingly. And then less begrudgingly, I admit. Funny thing is, my heart actually started to change.

Other times I’ve had to do this with people who hurt my feelings or slight me in some way. For example, some years ago there was someone in my life who would make digs at me in front of other people every chance they had. Man, that person got under my skin.

I’d think of all the perfect comebacks, and all the ways I could make them look bad. Then I’d remember Jesus again: “Love your enemy. Pray for those that get on your nerves” (or something like that).

So instead of my snappy comebacks, I’d try to love, and pray, and make space in my heart for this person I didn’t particularly want in my life, because Jesus said to do things that way, and I really do believe He knew what he was talking about.

A lesson in loving enemies

I admit, before I went to Lebanon, I thought I knew a little about loving my enemies. I have really tried to give it a good shot.

Then I went on this trip and realized that while I’d been giving myself a gold star for praying for my under-the-table enemies, I didn’t have much to boast about because, quite frankly, I’ve never had any real enemies.

As I wrote in my last post, many in Lebanon feel they have an enemy, and that enemy is Syria. This tension grew during the Lebanese civil war, which was just 20-30 years ago.

I am ashamed to say that I didn’t really know anything about this before my trip. I did not know the hurt and suffering felt by those who lived through this war, and the long term relational pain caused between Syrians and the Lebanese as a result.

I heard story after story after story.

A pastor in a sermon told this story: “My father was killed by Syrians.”

A woman told us this: “I stood at gunpoint before Syrian soldiers as I held my baby and prayed for God to take me first.”

A church leader recalled this: “This entire town was under siege by Syrians for 100 days, with no food or medical supplies allowed past.”

Story after story of pain, loss, and grief.

Coming face to face with enemy-love

With an aching heart I realized I didn’t get it. I never had an enemy like this. I realized yet another privilege that I've had as a white Westerner: the privilege of not having real enemies.

I know we try really hard to create them, over Facebook debates and in pseudo-internet rage, but, Father forgive me, I don’t get it at all. I have never had to love when hate runs so very deep.

Christians from Lebanon have had to do this. For the last five years, their enemy has come to live in their backyard. I can’t even fathom how difficult this must be! It sounds like it should be a nightmare, and for many, it is.

But that is not the story I heard in Lebanon. The story I heard was the story of Jesus-following, heart-changing, life-altering love.

Jesus followers in Lebanon had to make a very real choice in the last five years – the choice between loving or hating their enemies. They had to face a tough reality. Their enemies were now all around them and these enemies were hungry, lonely, and homeless.

As much as they might have wished He had, Jesus hadn’t given them an out. He didn't say: “You don’t have to care because they’re your enemy.” He said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – so they did and do.

What enemy-love really looks like

That pastor whose father was killed has a church that reaches out to thousands of Syrian families. A few weeks ago he invited a Syrian refugee to the front so he could wash his feet in front of the whole congregation, to remind them what it means to love and forgive. His church has grown from 60 to 900 people and two thirds of them are refugees.

The woman who prayed at gunpoint is part of a church that cares for 500 displaced Syrian families. She has her “own” families that she visits. Every week, she has tea with her enemies - except now, of course, they are friends. She told me recently that learning to love her enemy was one of the greatest challenges she ever faced, but it has brought her great blessing.

In that town that was under siege there is a church working tirelessly to care for 2000 Syrian families. The church started by hoping to help 100 families, but the need grew and grew – so they kept giving. Now, they give out 1400 food hampers every month. They provide diapers, job training, social support.

When they asked families what their greatest needs were, the answer for many was education for their children. In response, the church started a school in their basement, and when they ran out of room they set up a tent to help more children. The people doing this are the same people who sat under siege a mere generation ago, and now they’re loving their enemies one food hamper at a time.

This same church also runs day camps every week. Yes, every week. They have a bus and bring children in for a morning shift, and then do a second shift in the afternoon. We got to see one of these day camps in action, and meet one of the men who works non-stop to help make them happen.

I was already near the brink of my emotional cup after watching these beautiful children get to experience such joy at these camps, when I met another leader who told me: “You know that man you met? His brother was killed by Syrians. And now he loves these children with all his heart.”

That put me over the edge.

I know about losing a sibling. My sister, who I loved very much, also died. Cancer killed her.

And I thought: “I don’t think I could ever love cancer. I can’t imagine ever doing that. I don’t know if I could love what killed my sister."

Yet, this is what this man does. He loves his enemy every day in a practical, tangible way. He sings songs to his enemy. He hugs them. He drives their bus.

Living the teaching of Jesus

When I think about what stands out to me most from time in Lebanon it is seeing over and over again the lived practice of this teaching of Jesus: Love your enemies. More so, it was seeing what I already knew deep down. Loving like Jesus taught us changes things. It is changing Lebanon!

For every story of someone who has known hate, there is another story of someone who has now experienced love and said: “Tell me about this Jesus.”

Many of the churches can barely keep up with all the people God is bringing to their door. The hearts of those who once had called Syrians an enemy have also changed as they have found the means to forgive and heal.

Turns out I don’t know a lot about loving enemies after all. But after two weeks in Lebanon, I think I know a little more:

I know it is what Jesus called us to do.

I know I am now without excuse.

I know loving our enemies is the way to freedom and wholeness and new life.

I know it is changing things in Lebanon, one life at a time.

Thanks be to God.

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About the author

Leanne is Lead Pastor of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario, where she has served for the last 11 years. She blogs at leannefriesen.com