I believe that the love of our enemies is utterly essential to the love of God. If we do not love our enemies, we will not know God, nor rightly love Him. Indeed, I believe that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. If anything, this points to the utter necessity of grace – for how else will we ever love our enemies? On the other hand, I believe that embracing an interpretation of Scripture in which God’s wrath is seen as literally true, not only undercuts other statements in Scripture concerning God’s love, but also the consensus of the Fathers (certainly in the East). But more directly, belief that God’s character is such that He hates some and loves others, finally makes loving our own enemies impossible. How could we love more than God loves? If God hates some, then how can we dare to be different? St. Luke has a passage which is pivotal for me:
Luke 6:32-36 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
But, of course, if God is only merciful to some, then need I do more? It is absolutely foundational in the spiritual teaching of the Church that God is love and His mercy is towards all. Not only is His mercy towards all, but our mercy is to be the same. Thus the Church reads words such as “wrath” and “anger” metaphorically when they are applied to God – for God is not subject to human passions. It is not just foundational for understanding God – but foundational for our own salvation – our own conformity to the image of Christ. If we do not journey as far down the road towards the utter forgiveness of our enemies, we will have taken our hand from the plow, turned aside from the path God has set us.
I append a short conversation of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos which points towards how our attitude should be towards all – and how the gospel should be preached. Such stories are not an argument for those who are convinced that the Bible teaches that God is wrathful and angry with sinners. I can only take refuge in the received teaching of the Church and the received interpretation of Scripture. The proof, if there can be such, of its veracity can be found in the lives of the saints, whom God has given us in every age.
Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone – to his capacity for loving Christ.
I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz [Saint Silouan] and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. the Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people. The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly,
‘I tell them, Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’
The Staretz heard him out, then asked,
‘Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?’
‘Yes, that they do believe.’
‘And do they revere the Mother of God?’
‘Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.’
‘And what about the Saints?’
‘Yes they honor them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?’
‘Do they celebrate the Divine Office in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?’
‘Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services with ours – how cold and lifeless theirs are!’
‘Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honor the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation…. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.’