Forgiving and loving those who have wronged us can be extremely difficult. When someone hurts us deeply, our natural reaction is often to recoil, to harbor bitterness and resentment, and to wish that person harm. However, the Bible provides clear guidance that, as followers of Christ, we are called to a different response. We are to forgive others just as God has forgiven us, and to love even those who persecute us. In this article, we will explore what the Bible teaches about loving and forgiving those who have hurt us deeply.
Forgive As You Have Been Forgiven
One of the clearest principles in Scripture regarding forgiveness comes from Christ’s teaching in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Here, Christ links God’s forgiveness of our sins to our forgiveness of others. His point is that we cannot expect forgiveness from God if we are unwilling to forgive others. As Christ explains following the prayer, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
The parable of the unmerciful servant powerfully illustrates this principle (Matthew 18:21-35). In the story, a servant who owes his master an enormous sum begs for mercy and the master forgives his entire debt. Yet that servant then refuses to forgive a fellow servant a far smaller amount, and the master punishes him harshly for his hypocrisy and lack of mercy. Jesus concludes the parable by warning, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
As this parable demonstrates, when we have been forgiven much by God, we should extend grace and forgiveness to others. We all stand in need of God’s mercy, and only He has the right to withhold forgiveness. As Christ followers, we are called to forgive no matter how deeply we have been wronged.
Love Your Enemies
Jesus takes the command to forgive even a step further by telling us to love our enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Loving our enemies is perhaps the most radical command Jesus gave. He tells us to love not just those who wrong us inadvertently or occasionally, but those who intentionally hurt us, persecute us, and wish us harm. We are to return hate with love, greeting those who curse us with blessing. This runs entirely counter to our human instincts of self-preservation and justice. We naturally want to see our enemies punished, not loved. However, Jesus is unequivocal in his command. He himself demonstrated radical enemy-love by praying from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).
As with forgiveness, Christ links loving our enemies to being like God, who sends sun and rain even on those who rebel against Him. When we love unconditionally, we reflect God’s perfection. Jesus asks the piercing question: If we only love those who love us back, how are we any different from pagans? Our love is to be distinct because it extends even to enemies.
Bless Those Who Persecute You
The commands to forgive and love our enemies take on greater significance and challenge when we are suffering persecution for our faith. Both Jesus and the apostles address how believers are to respond to persecution.
Jesus comforts his followers by promising blessing to those who are persecuted for righteousness:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)
Though persecution is intensely painful, Jesus reminds us that we are blessed because we suffer for the sake of Christ. Our persecution is temporary, but our reward in heaven–being with Christ–is eternal. Therefore, we can rejoice even in the midst of opposition, keeping our eyes on the glory to come.
The apostle Paul echoes Christ’s command to bless persecutors and avoid retaliation:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:14, 17-19)
Rather than cursing or fighting back when persecuted, we are to speak blessing and peace, leaving justice and vengeance to God. By doing good and avoiding retaliation, we “heap burning coals” on the heads of our enemies by showing them grace and reflecting Christ’s love (Romans 12:20).
Paul also highlights the example of Christ when facing persecution:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
Just as Jesus entrusted himself to God when facing unjust persecution, we are to follow in his steps by committing ourselves to God without retaliation or threats. By responding to enemies with love rather than vengeance, we point them to the grace and justice of Christ.
Practical Steps to Loving and Forgiving
Putting Christ’s challenging commands into practice requires tremendous spiritual and emotional effort on our part. Loving those who have hurt or opposed us goes against our deepest instincts. Here are some practical steps we can take to walk in forgiveness and love:
– **Pray for those who have hurt you.** Bring their names before God and intercede on their behalf. Ask God to bless them and meet their deepest needs. Pray that they might experience God’s love and be reconciled to Him (Luke 6:28).
– **Bless them with words.** Follow Christ’s example by speaking words of blessing over those who persecute us. Verbally wish them well rather than cursing them (Romans 12:14).
– **Do good to them.** Return good for evil by treating them with kindness and mercy, just as God has treated us (Luke 6:27).
– **Remember Christ’s love and sacrifice.** Reflect on Christ’s grace in forgiving your own sins at immense personal cost. His love and mercy motivate us to extend that same grace to others (Ephesians 4:32).
– **Trust God with justice and vengeance.** Resist taking matters into your own hands. God promises to repay the wicked and vindicate the righteous in His perfect timing and ways (Romans 12:19). Entrust yourself to His justice and care.
– **Die to self.** The key to forgiving and loving enemies is dying to our own selfishness, pride and insistence on justice. We must daily take up our cross, following Jesus’ example of radical self-denial (Luke 9:23).
– **Walk in the Spirit.** Loving our enemies is only possible through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. As we walk in step with the Spirit, He produces His fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). These Spirit-empowered virtues enable us to overcome evil with good.
The Purpose of Loving Our Enemies
Loving and forgiving those who have hurt or opposed us is incredibly challenging. Why then does Christ call us to this radical response?
First, **enabling us to love like He loves reflects God’s glory.** As image-bearers of God, loving enemies demonstrates His gracious nature and perfect character (Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:35-36).
Secondly, **blessing and loving our persecutors removes any basis for attack or accusation.** Responding to enemies in love leaves no room for valid criticism of our behavior, even from those seeking opportunity to disparage us (1 Peter 2:12; 3:16; Romans 12:20-21).
Thirdly, **loving our enemies may bring some to repentance.** Just as God’s kindness is meant to lead to repentance (Romans 2:4), when we love unconditionally we allow the Spirit to soften hearts and draw people to Christ through our witness (Matthew 5:16).
Finally, Christ commands it **for our own growth in grace.** Loving enemies requires supernatural empowerment which stretches and matures our faith. It conforms us evermore to the image of Christ, who even prayed for the forgiveness of those crucifying Him (Hebrews 12:3; 1 Peter 2:21-23).
Forgiving and doing good to those who have hurt us is incredibly difficult. But it is through these very acts that we reflect Christ to a watching world and grow in grace ourselves. By the Spirit’s empowerment, may we extend radical grace and live out the challenging call of Scripture to bless those who persecute us.
Biblical Examples of Loving Enemies
Scripture provides numerous examples of God’s people loving and forgiving their enemies. These examples both illustrate what it looks like in practice and encourage us in our own journeys of showing grace.
**Joseph and his brothers** – After being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Joseph rose to power in Egypt and was eventually reconciled with his brothers, telling them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50:20). He forgave them completely.
**David and Saul** – David was relentlessly pursued by Saul, who sought to kill him out of jealousy. Yet when given opportunities to kill Saul, David spared his life and honored him as God’s anointed king (1 Samuel 24, 26).
**Stephen** – While being stoned to death, Stephen prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers, following Christ’s example: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
**Jesus and his crucifiers** – As Jesus hung on the cross in agony, he prayed for God to forgive those responsible for his crucifixion (Luke 23:34). He demonstrated ultimate love and forgiveness.
These and many other biblical examples illustrate enemy-love in action. They remind us of God’s grace and inspire us to extend that same grace to others, even when it costs us greatly.
The Limits of Forgiveness
While Scripture calls for radical forgiveness and love, it does not mean tolerating or enabling sin. There are appropriate boundaries when relating to those who have harmed us. Consider these limits:
– **Forgiveness does not necessarily equal reconciliation.** It releases the offense but does not require restoring trust or relationship, especially if the offender continues in unrepentant sin.
– **Forgiveness does not mean avoiding civil consequences.** Criminal acts may still have judicial ramifications, even if spiritual forgiveness is extended.
– **Protect yourself from harm.** Removing yourself from abusive situations or limiting contact may be necessary for physical and emotional health, while still maintaining an attitude of grace.
– **Confront sin graciously.** While loving our enemies, we may still rebuke sin and wrongdoing, as Christ and the prophets did. The goal should be repentance and restoration.
– **Pray for justice.** As Christians we forego personal vengeance but may still desire God’s justice and intervention. Crying out to God to deal with sin is appropriate.
Forgiveness and boundary-setting are not mutually exclusive. With wisdom and Spirit-guidance, we can navigate them both in a godly manner. Radical grace does not implies naiveté. We can forgive completely while still protecting ourselves and confronting sin.
Loving and forgiving people who have hurt or opposed us deeply goes against our human nature. However, Scripture provides consistent and unequivocal direction that this is the life we are called to as followers of Christ. Driven by God’s gracious love toward us in forgiving our sins, we in turn are to extend that same costly grace and love to others. This includes forgiving others just as we have been forgiven, loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us, and overcoming evil with good. With God’s enablement, we can reflect His perfect character and bear witness to the transformative power of His love. We are all dependent on grace. May we extend that grace not only to those who love us in return, but even to our enemies.