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Love Your Enemies Within

 
Let us celebrate this wondrous thing called love.  The kind of love Jesus was talking about in his Sermon on the Mount was agape – unconditional love.  When the 1st letter of John said that God is love, the biblical Greek word used for love was agape.  Love beyond just love for one’s romantic partner or child or parent or friend:  love without limits.  Love no matter what. 
 
In nature we aren’t surprised to see a bird feed its chicks, or a horse nuzzle its colt.  Any more than we’re surprised to see a parent cuddle with his or her child.  It is normal, but marvelous.  It boggles the mind to consider that such a powerful, invisible, intangible force as love could have emerged anywhere in the unfolding of the cosmos.  How did such an otherworldly experience as falling in love emerge out of the process of natural selection?  We might be able to account for it scientifically, but it feels like something beyond explanation. 
 
The mystery of romantic and filial love is staggering enough.  But Jesus’ admonition to us to love our enemies goes even further into the realm of the ineffable.  Even thinking about it, much less trying to love your enemies is truly a next-level kind of love.  Agape love is the crown of creation – the most glorious thing ever to emerge on planet Earth.  A bigger deal by far than any discovery or invention or contraption ever created by human beings.  Because it is a love that goes beyond the bounds of any kind of self-interest.  It is non-transactional.  It is utterly other-oriented.  It is the universe knowing itself and being in awe of itself just because it is there.
 
The totally awesome thing about love, especially the most totally stupendously outrageously intense thing called agape love, is that it is natural.  It is the natural consequence of the development of the universe.  There is a quality, a nature, of the universe that generates this wonderment called love.  That’s crazy amazing!  We should be completely blown away, every day, all the time, by the mere existence of love – especially the agape kind. 
 
Christianity is a mythical narrative that lifts up the cosmic significance of unconditional love, focuses us on it, and moves us to live it out as best we can.  The church is the fitness center where we exercise agape love, building up the spiritual muscle to practice it – even with our enemies.
 
I don’t doubt for a second that when Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, exhorted his listeners to “love your enemies”, he intended for the word “enemies” to refer to people.
 
And that’s challenging enough!  That phrase is enough Christianity to occupy an entire lifetime.  Trying to love the people I do like, and then going next level to try to love the people I don’t like, keeps me so busy that it crowds out all other theological ruminations in importance.
 
We are called by Jesus to do the very best we can to practice this love.  And to want to do even better than the very best that we can. 
 
One way to do that is to go further within.
 
Lately, I’ve been musing that Jesus’ admonition applies also to my inner enemies:  the thoughts, urges, sensations, and urges that I’d rather not have to deal with.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that anger was as bad as murder, and that lust was the same as adultery.  Unmanaged anger is our enemy.  Unbridled lust is our enemy.  Even if we never express them in direct outward behavior.
 
Jesus was saying that the Pharisees, who were imposing on common people an impossible thicket of extra rules on top of the already difficult ones in the Bible, were still far short of the mark.  Jesus said that the law of Israel applied not only to outward behavior but also to inner orientation.  By that standard, the Pharisees flunked like everybody else.  So the Pharisees had no business making regular folks feel less-than because they could not afford the time and trouble to obey all their fussy little externally-focused rules. 
 
If we think of our problematic emotional reactions like unmanaged lust and overwhelming anger as “enemies”, then what does it mean to love them?  
 
At its root, agape love is deep attention.  Attention liberated from opinions and judgments.  Attention that is open and curious and willing.  Loving our inner enemies is paying deep attention to them when they arise. 
 
It is hard to make needed changes in our lives if we don’t know what is going on inside of us.  And it is hard to see clearly what’s going on inside of us if we look with eyes of judgment.  We first have to let go of our evaluations and opinions and revulsions about what we see inside, in order to be able to see inside clearly at all.  So step one is noticing that we have opinions about our anger and lust and other challenging urges and emotions.  We need to start by looking clearly at those opinions, and then having seen them, let them go.  Then we can look clearly at the objects of those opinions.  Once we can truly and fully examine our problematic inner experiences with agape compassion, then and only then can we begin to liberate ourselves from their control over our behavior.  This is at the heart of Christian contemplative, meditative prayer practice. 
 
I’ll never forget that when my daughter Liz was young, she sometimes would get upset if I praised her.  She didn’t like it if I told her that her drawings were beautiful or wonderful.  At first I was confused.  Then I realized that she was wise enough to get it that if I could judge her in a positive way, I could just as easily judge her in a negative way.  And so she wanted no judgments at all!  I learned to say instead: “I really enjoy looking at your drawings!” 
 
So we can go yet further with Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount, and recognize that our virtuous inner experiences should be observed compassionately alongside our virtuous outward behaviors.  Again, in order to attend deeply to our inner feelings of kindness and care, we need to let go of our judgments of them, even if they are positive – and just observe them as they are, in their raw, real form – with inner eyes of agape love.  What is it like to have the urge to be kind?  How and when does it arise?  Being able to see this clearly will cultivate our capacity for kindness.   Jesus said to “consider the lilies”.  He said to “look at the birds of the air”.  Just look, with eyes of compassion, at things as they are.

Our propensity to judge is itself one of our inner enemies, is it not?  We have opinions about almost everything.  It’s natural, it’s normal, and it can get to be a real problem.  Because our judgments keep us from seeing what is real, keep us from seeing clearly what is right before us, right there within us.  The miracle of agape love gently lifts away the veil of judgment that clouds our vision.  And, once lifted, agape gives us the power to change our ways so that we can more fully live out the love that is God.

Click here to visit Jim’s newest website: “Souljourning”.

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity, his latest book is Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership.  He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org. 

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