We talk about enemies less than we used to.
It may not feel that way. The amount of infighting, mudslinging, name-calling, and downright nastiness in public discourse today, including within the church, is both tragic and self-defeating. Slander and snark have been normalized in many circles. So thinking and talking about enemies in these fractious and divided times might sound like the last thing we need.
Yet the opposite is true for two reasons. The first is biblical: The Scriptures talk about enemies with robust clarity and remarkable frequency, including in ways we are explicitly urged to imitate. The second reason is cultural: Confusion about who exactly God’s enemies are, and how the church should respond to them, makes Christians more likely to attack one another, not less.
Take the biblical argument first. There are around 400 references to an “enemy” or “enemies” in Scripture. (By way of comparison, that’s about twice as often as the words gracious and grace appear.) Admittedly, plenty of these examples relate to political or military opponents of Israel that no longer exist. But some refer to those who love the world, hate the Cross, and hate the church (James 4:4; Phil. 3:18; Rev. 11:5, 12).
Many references concern the work of the Messiah himself, who will “possess the gate of his enemies” (Gen. 22:17, ESV), and who—in the biblical text that’s quoted most frequently by Jesus and in the whole New Testament—will sit at God’s right hand until his enemies are made into a “footstool” (Ps. 110:1). Apparently, crushing the head of his enemies is a central feature of what Christ came to do. It is the subject of the first prophecy about him, way back in the Garden (Gen. 3:15), and it is prefigured in numerous head-crushing stories in the Hebrew Bible, from Sisera and Abimelek to Dagon and Goliath.
More pointedly, the apostles urge the church to pray and sing the Psalms (Eph. 5:19), which are chock-full of prayers for deliverance from—and the destruction of—our enemies. Unless we are prepared to cut these passages out with scissors, in the manner of Thomas Jefferson’s edited Bible, we will need to find meaningful ways of understanding and praying them. After all, even Psalm 23, the most peaceful, pastoral, and popular psalm, features a table being spread “in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5).
We need to ask: What does it look like to pray, “Break the teeth of the wicked” while continuing to love our enemies (Ps. 3:7; Matt. 5:44)? Are we asking God to overthrow groups like ISIS or tyrants like Vladimir Putin? Crush the Devil and all his works? Vindicate Jesus? Destroy our own sin? Remove all evil on the Day of Judgment? All of the above? (I have found Trevor Laurence’s Cursing with God hugely helpful on these questions.)
Our current cultural context makes a biblical view of enmity more important. And a curious paradox is at work here. As modern Westerners have become less convinced that the Devil exists, we have grown more inclined to see one another as diabolical. (As historians like Tom Holland and Alec Ryrie have pointed out, we now invoke Hitler, Nazis, or the Holocaust instead of Satan, demons, or hell, but the effect is much the same.)
These trends are connected. We know in our boots that radical evil exists, so if we don’t know precisely who our enemies are, we tend to see them everywhere. Most of us avoid terms like enemies or the wicked, preferring a combination of slurs, expletives, spiteful epithets, and slanderous generalizations. But even when the language of enmity disappears, the experience of it does not, as anyone who has ever rejoiced at someone’s fall (or lamented at someone’s success) knows well.
One solution to the enmity doom loop is having greater clarity on who our true enemies are. Sin, death, the world, the flesh, the Devil: These are the foes Christ came to crush. And they are at work in us, just as they are at work in the people we dislike. We love the rich young ruler by hating Mammon. We love the Ephesians—and the Londoners and New Yorkers—by hating idolatry. For our struggle is against the spiritual forces of evil, not flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12).
“Every group has a devil,” I remember a wise pastor saying several years ago. “In which case, ours might as well be the Devil.”
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and the author of Remaking the World.
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