Author: David Wilber
Emotions are powerful. Our emotions, like compassion and empathy, often motivate us to do wonderful things like give to charity and help people in need. When we see an injustice, many times it will deeply affect us and move us to take positive action. And yet, strong negative emotions—jealousy, vindictiveness, resentment—can often overpower our better judgment and move us to neglect or hurt people. Indeed, our sinful inclination influences our emotions and therefore our behavior (Romans 6:12). Thus, we oftentimes must ignore our feelings in order to do what’s right.
The Torah takes direct aim at how our negative emotions might affect us:
If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him. (Exodus 23:4-5)
Here we see that we are commanded, in some circumstances, to ignore our emotions. When you see that your enemy—that is, someone who hates you—is in need, you are to go out of your way to help them regardless of your feelings or theirs. While you would naturally feel angry or vindictive towards that person and want to therefore ignore their need, you must set those feelings aside.
These mitzvot (commandments) follow directly after a passage that concerns upholding justice in court. This principle applies here as well. For instance, while we might feel bad for a poor person, we are explicitly commanded not to be partial to them in their lawsuit on the basis of mere pity. Our sole concern must be what is true and fair. If justice isn’t about truth and fairness, it simply isn’t real justice. And if there is no justice, society breaks down.
Again, emotions are powerful. And negative emotions towards our enemies have an impact on our behavior, which has an impact on society as a whole. As disciples of Yeshua, we are called to the standard of Scripture. We are commissioned to uphold righteousness and justice and make a positive impact in our communities for God’s glory. That’s why Yeshua reiterates these Torah principles in His Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Yeshua calls us to love our enemies. But how can we possibly do that? Isn’t love connected to our emotions? Indeed, we might be able to ignore our emotions, but we certainly can’t change them, right? While it’s true that there are emotional aspects to love, in the Bible love is often connected to what we do. Like our passage from the Torah, Yeshua gives us practical steps on loving our enemy. What’s profound is that following these practical steps can also have an effect on our emotions.
According to Yeshua, the first step to loving our enemies is to pray for them. Not only is God moved by our prayers for the sake of our enemy, but also for the sake of our own hearts. When we sincerely pray for the people who hate us and who have hurt us, God changes the way we see them. He helps us to stop dehumanizing them and seeing them as only the person who caused us pain. God helps us see them as our neighbor—a flawed but generally good-intentioned person like us—rather than our enemy. Prayer is powerful and transformative. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it:
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.
The second step is to meet their needs. Just as God causes the the sun to shine and the rain to fall on His enemies, we ought to look for opportunities to meet the needs of our enemies. This goes right back to our passage from Exodus. Regardless of our emotions towards the person who hates us, we must do the right thing.
Third, Yeshua says that we are to greet our enemies. Setting aside grudges and bitterness to muster up a friendly “hello” goes a long way. And again, following these practical steps can potentially impact our own feelings. Who knows? Simply greeting your enemy could perhaps open the door to eventually restoring a friendship. We should never think that a broken relationship is utterly beyond God’s ability to repair. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard puts it well:
Never cease loving a person, and never give up hope for him, for even the prodigal son who had fallen most low, could still be saved; the bitterest enemy and also he who was your friend could again be your friend; love that has grown cold can kindle.
While it’s good to hope for such things, the bottom line is still that we are to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. God has not called us to be led by our emotions, but by His Spirit. We can hope that God changes hearts (especially our own). We can hope that God restores relationships and turns enemies into friends again. But in the meantime, regardless of how we feel, we set our emotions aside to do what’s right.
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