In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed a common human error of thinking: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43–44, NKJV).
“You shall love your neighbor” is a core command of Scripture (see Leviticus 19:18). It is second only to the greatest commandment to love God with our whole being (see Matthew 22:34–40). However, in the latter half of His statement—“and hate your enemy”—Jesus exposed the human tendency toward faulty thinking. Hating one’s enemies is the natural human response. It seems to track with the Old Testament case law of retribution or lex talionis (see Exodus 21:24–25; Leviticus 24:19–20; cf. Matthew 5:38–42). Although it was never meant to be applied to individual personal relationships, this law had spilled over into everyday affairs. Still today, we feel justified in our desire to retaliate or get revenge if someone threatens or opposes us. But followers of Jesus Christ are called to a different standard.
Jesus raised the bar to God’s standard of love (Matthew 5:48), demonstrating it through the Parable of the Good Samaritan found in the related passage of Luke 10:25–37. Jesus showed that all people (even Samaritans, who were enemies of the Jews) are our neighbors, and, therefore, we are called to love every person we encounter. Believers must hate no one, not even their worst enemies. Christians must reject their base inclinations and even go a step beyond merely not retaliating (Romans 12:17–21; Proverbs 25:21–22).
Jesus called us to have an attitude of love toward our enemies. He said we must bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and “pray for those who spitefully use” and persecute us. Peter pointed out that there are times when we must endure abusive treatment for doing good, which pleases God (1 Peter 2:20).
The command to “pray for those who spitefully use you” also appears in verse 28 of Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:27–36, NKJV). The expression translated “spitefully use you” in the original Greek refers to verbal abuse. It means “to use foul or abusive language towards or about someone, to threaten, mistreat, revile, insult.” Peter employed the same term when he encouraged believers to keep “a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:16). In fact, Peter echoed the Lord’s teaching to love our enemies: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).
The Bible presents examples of praying for those who spitefully use, mistreat, and persecute us. As Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was being stoned to death, he fell to his knees and prayed for his killers, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). The finest illustration is offered by Jesus Christ, who from the cross prayed for those who crucified Him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Earlier, through His model prayer, Jesus taught that our prayers should include forgiving those who sin against us (Matthew 6:12, 14–15). Paul urged believers, “Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. . . . Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them” (Romans 12:12–14, NLT).
Praying for those who spitefully use us is often more challenging than blessing and doing good to them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “[Prayer] is the supreme demand. Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God” (The Cost of Discipleship, 6th ed., SCM Press, 1959, p. 134).