“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:12-14; NIV)
I once had an enemy. We worked together in an office. The owner of the business created dissention between employees by speaking to each of them about the others, behind their backs. I suppose he felt like he was creating loyalty by being on their “side,” but what dawned on me was that he was talking about me badly to the other employees, the same way he was talking to me about them. It's not surprising that the employees viewed each other negatively. One of those employees really disliked me. I'd even say, hated me.
It was a bizarre and negative work environment, made all the worse by the fact that the owner declared himself to be a Christian. The fellow who disliked me also identified himself as a Christian, and he and his wife were at a church I had once attended.
I think it might have been resentment over what I was being paid, but I am not certain. The reason doesn't matter. It never matters. In life, we don't always know the reasons. All that matters are the choices we make.
It's rough when someone deliberately tries to harass you. My work requires concentration. I found myself disrespected and slandered, often to my face and in front of other employees. It's the only time I've had a peer treat me this way since, I think, the fourth grade. Nothing I tried made any difference. I had always believed that my enemy in this world was Satan, and I prayed daily for God's strength to resist his attacks. I eventually reached the point where I was praying against Satan's schemes and also this other guy's. My two enemies.
The problem is that, in approaching the situation this way, I found myself growing increasingly antagonistic to him as well. I began to think of him in the worst possible terms. Resentment began to build. I felt myself drifting farther from the Lord. There was no appeal to the owner of the business.
But there was an appeal. It was an appeal to the Holy Spirit. The target of that appeal was my own heart.
We cannot control others. We can only control ourselves. No matter how I am treated, the Lord expects me to love people the way he loves me. That has nothing to do with them. Jesus died for those who were previously the enemies of God. His love was not conditional on how he was treated.
I also think about the Apostle Paul. There was a time when he was the enemy of Christians. But God had a greater plan for his life. As we face people who might have it in for us, it can be helpful to think of them as people who may one day be transformed into servants of Christ. The way we respond to them now, when we are mistreated, may be the very thing that attracts them to Jesus later. Jesus said that everyone would know we were his disciples by our love for one another. We do not reflect who he is, in any sense, if we treat others with contempt.
When Jesus says that we are his friends if we do what he commands (John 15:12-14), I think his point is that we are aligned with him and his goals if we love others, and we are in opposition to him and his goals if we don't. Following Jesus is about showing others the love we have received ourselves. If you're returning offense with more offense, if you refuse to humble yourself and love your enemies, you're not following him.
We are the means by which people experience the love of Jesus. It happens through us. He has gone away for a bit, and has left us to carry on his work. That work is love. The path he walked was one of self-sacrifice, and sacrifice is the greatest example of love that there is. It's not a feeling, it is an action. When we are given offense, we need to put others before ourselves. In the true matters of love, there is no self. If he took the form of a bondservant and humbled himself to death, it certainly means I can at least return hatred with kindness. It's not easy, but I can do it. We can do it.