But I Say To You, Love Your Enemies


Love is an interior disposition that cannot be described adequately, but one can specify conditions and manifestations. In this way it is possible, by close attention to the wisdom of the Fathers, to define different steps in the love of enemies, from the most elementary to the highest. [1]

The first step, says St. John Chrysostom, is not to be the first to cause harm. [2]

The second step is not to take revenge in the measure one has suffered. [3]

While the two first degrees do not seem to concern the love of enemies, they are its preconditions. The tendency to attack one’s enemies or to take revenge is instinctive and spontaneous, and receives its approbation from the Old Testament law of retaliation when taken in its most literal meaning.

The third step is not to take revenge at all, but to leave that to God, as the Apostle Paul said: “Recompense to no man evil for evil” (Rm 12:17); “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rm 12:19). St. Isaac the Syrian gives the same advice: “Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute. Let yourself be crucified, but do not crucify. Let yourself be insulted, but do not insult.” [4]

The fourth step is not to resist. This attitude was advised by Christ: “But I say unto you, That ye resist no evil.” (Mt 5:39)

The fifth step is not to be irritated by what our enemies do to us [footnote: St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on Charity I,38, II,49], but to bear [5], to show patience [6], to endure all we are made to suffer, following the example of the Apostle: “Being persecuted, we suffer it” (I Cor 4:12) and following what he describes elsewhere as an ideal: “For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.” (II Cor 11:20)

The sixth step is not to get inwardly upset about insults, abuse, trials and affliction that our enemies make us suffer [7], or as St. Simeon the New Theologian puts it: “not to turn a hair during trials and to have an equable and uniform attitude towards those who abuse one face to face, who accuse, persecute, condemn, insult, spit, or even to those who make a show of friendship and behind one’s back act in the same way that they can’t completely hide.” We must add that this can happen on different planes, as this attitude also has different steps. On the lowest step it can be allied to contempt, and so be the opposite to love; one step higher it can be allied to indifference, and so still not be in accordance with love; on a higher plane it can show that one has attained impassibility, and higher still, be allied to true charity.

The seventh step is to consider offenses as a gift [8], to rejoice about them [9], and to thank God for them. He who has reached this step understands the meaning of these words of Christ: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” (Mt 5:11) The Fathers advise us to consider the person who offends us as a physician providentially come to cure our souls of its diseases, particularly pride and vainglory [10], they emphasize the profit one can gain from what one is made to suffer. St. Zosima said: “If someone remembers a brother who has hurt, injured or insulted him, he must regard him as a doctor and benefactor sent by Christ. If you get upset in these circumstances, it means your soul is sick. Indeed, if you were not sick, you would not suffer. So give thanks to this brother, for through him you know your illness. Pray for him and receive what comes from him as medicine sent to you by the Lord.” St. John of Gaza writes, “If we are just, the trial sent us [by our enemies] is for our progress, and if we are unjust, it is for the remission of sins and our improvement; it is also an exercise and a lesson in endurance.”

The eighth step is to offer yourself voluntarily to suffer offenses [11]. This attitude is advised by Christ: “Whosoever shall strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt 5:39)

The ninth step is to want to suffer more than one is asked to endure [12].

The tenth step is to feel no hate for those who ill-treat us [13].

The eleventh step is to feel no rancor, wrath or resentment [14] towards our enemies. St. John Climacus wrote: “Charity is first of all to reject every thought of enmity, because charity thinks no ill.” (I Cor 13:5) [15]

The twelfth step is not to accuse our enemies, not to criticize them, not to speak ill of them, not even to reveal the harm they have done to us [16].

The thirteenth step is not to despise them [17].

The fourteenth step is to feel no trace of aversion or repulsion towards them [18].

The fifteenth step is not to feel the slightest bitterness towards them or to the memory of what they have done to us, nor the slightest sadness [19].

The sixteenth step is not to judge them at all [20] and only to consider one’s own faults. This in answer to Christ’s teaching: “Judge not, that ye be not judged . . . And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Mt 7:1-3)

The seventeenth step is to sincerely forgive them [21]. This attitude makes us worthy to invoke God for the forgiveness of our own faults in the prayer the Lord taught us: “And forgive us for our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12), and shows that we take these words of Christ seriously: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Mt 6:14). This forgiveness in its highest form does not even remember what one has suffered. St. Simeon the New Theologian notes that in this degree love of enemies consists in “covering with total oblivion what one has suffered, think of nothing that has happened, whether the persecutors are present or absent.”

Still these seventeen first steps don’t yet take us into what is love proper, although they are its indispensable conditions and preparatory stages that one must pass. Love is not simply the absence of enmity and it is very superior to it [22]. In this respect St. Maximus the Confessor writes: “To feel no envy, nor wrath, nor bitterness towards the offender does not yet mean to have love for him. One can, without any love, avoid rendering evil for evil because of the commandment. Not to hate someone, does not yet mean to love him. One can feel for him something between the two: not love and not hate. It is the following steps that will bring us to real love.

The eighteenth step is to strive to be reconciled with one’s enemies [23], as ordained by Christ: “First be reconciled with thy brother” (Mt 5:24), “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him” (Mt 5:25). By this attitude we show a desire of union that is the foundation of love, contrary to this is the tendency to division and separation.

The nineteenth step is to feel pity and compassion for them [24]. This attitude is in answer to Christ’s counsel, given in the context of His teaching on the love of enemies: “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Lk 6:36). This is how St. Isaac the Syrian describes him who has real compassion for all beings in creation, and so also for his enemies: “When he thinks of them, and when he sees them, tears run from his eyes. So strong and so violent is his compassion, and so great is his constancy that it wrings his heart and he can’t bear to hear or to see the least harm or the slightest sadness in creation.”

The twentieth step implies not only that one renounces being avenged by God, but also wishing that He will not punish our enemies. The Apostle’s instruction — “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom 12:19) — seems to have been given to beginners hardly able to give up their own revenge. This twentieth step consists positively in wanting God to forgive our enemies, to keep and save them [25].

The twenty-first step is to pray God for them [26]. This attitude is in answer to Christ’s commandment: “Pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Mt 5:44, Lk 6:28). It is evident that praying for enemies has been implied from the first steps, but then it was a means of avoiding undesirable attitudes like hate, spite, resentment, and pride which bound to them, and be purified of them [27]. In the higher stages, the prayer is no longer for oneself but for the other: it leads to compassion and to love for the enemy and permits to develop, to strengthen and to show these positive attitudes. It consists then in asking God to take pity on him, forgive him his sins, save him and give him what is best [28]. A sorrowful heart and tears are the sign that the prayer is deep, sincere and motivated by real compassion [29]. St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “He who is compassionate prays tearfully, at all hours, for the animals without reason, for the enemies of truth, and for all who harm him, so that they be kept and forgiven.” “He who loves his enemies,” says St. Maximus, “will even suffer for them if the chance is given him.”

The twenty-second step is to have affection for them [30]. St. Simeon notes that at this level love consists in “loving them from the bottom of the soul, and more still in engraving in oneself the face of each one of them, to kiss them impassibly as true friends with tears of sincere charity.”

The twenty-third step is to wish them and do them good [31]. This attitude is in answer to the commandments of Christ: “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” (Mt 5:44; cf Lk 6:27-28); “But love ye your enemies and do good” (Lk 6:35); “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Lk 6:31), commandments repeated by the Apostle: “Bless them which persecute you, bless and curse not” (Rom 12:14), “Provide things honest in the sight of all men” (Rom 12:17); “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink” (Rom 12:20). In their behavior the Apostles show this attitude: “being reviled, we bless” (I Cor 4:12). When a man who was being ill-treated asked him how to act, St. John of Gaza had only one answer: “Do good to him.” St. Isaac advises: “Show the greatness of your compassion by rendering good to those who were unjust to you” and he writes that “it is a great thing to do good to sinners more than to the just.” St. Maximus teaches that one only loves when one is able to “return naturally good for evil” and that “to be capable of doing good to those who hate us is only given to perfect spiritual love.” Love does not only consist of doing good to our enemies, but also in thinking well of them [32].

The twenty-fourth step is to consider those who harm us in the same way as those who do us good, and to love them in the same way [33]. St. Barsanuphios teaches that one must manage “to consider he who strikes as he who caresses, he who despises as he who esteems, he who insults as he who honors, he who afflicts as he who consoles.” More than all Fathers, St. Maximus advises us to treat all men equally and to love them all without making any difference, friends or enemies, just or sinners. He wrote: “Blessed the man who can love all men equally.” “He who is good and impassive, by the disposition of his will, loves equally all men, the just for their nature and their good disposition, the sinners for their nature [34] and with the compassionate pity one has for a fool wandering in the night.” He adds that “perfect love loves all men equally. He loves the virtuous as friends, and the depraved as enemies.” “If you detest some people, feel for others neither love nor hate, if you love these, but moderately, and if you love those very much, know by this inequality that you are still far from perfect, as this loves all men equally.” Indeed “the friends of Christ truly love all beings.” St. Isaac the Syrian gives the same teaching: “Consider all men, whether unbelievers or murderers, as equal in good and honor [35], and that each one by his nature is your brother, even if without knowing it, he has wandered from the truth.” “Compassion” he says “is a sadness born from grace; it feels for all beings with the same affection.” “He who loves all beings equally, with compassion and discernment, has reached perfection.”

The twenty-fifth step is to treat our enemies in the same way as our friends. He who really loves his enemies, writes St. Simeon, is capable of “receiving them too as friends at meeting for meals, without at all returning to the past.” [36] St. John Chrysostom says the same: “We act towards them who have harmed us as towards real friends, and love them as ourselves.” [37]

The twenty-sixth step is to love our enemies not only as ourselves, but more than ourselves. Charity, says St. Maximus “leads harmoniously to this praiseworthy inequality through which each prefers his neighbor to himself, as much as in the past he wanted to push him to the side and put himself forward.” [38] In the Apophthegmata, we read that the monks of Sketes in the desert west of the Nile Delta sought to love their enemies even more than themselves.

This classification in steps does not of course pretend to establish a rigorous hierarchy. Some attitudes are susceptible of being on different levels and each attitude more or less implies the others. In the end love is a disposition whole and undividable. Our classification is mainly pedagogical; it tries to help us understand that the love of enemies has many components, that is acquisition is the result of numerous demands and is only possible after a gradual and multiform interior effort. It also wishes to stress that there are different levels of quality and of intensity that those who haven’t long fought to reach will barely understand.

If one examines the teaching of St. Silouan on the love of enemies, one notices that he is not unaware of the elementary steps, but mostly considers the higher levels. This confirms what we have already said, that the teaching of the Starets is the expression of a personal experience at the highest level of spiritual life.

For the person as yet unable to love his enemies, St. Silouan teaches that at least he must not hate them, curse them or snub them, and to refuse thoughts of anger against them. In that way at least progress is made towards love.

The love of enemies implies that one not only must bear the afflictions that they make us suffer, but also that one suffers them with joy for God’s sake. It also implies correlatively that one thanks God for all these afflictions. As we have seen, they contribute to our spiritual progress and for this reason must be received as a providential gift of God for our salvation.

The love of enemies also implies that, face to face with the violence one suffers, one should maintain peace of soul and body; in other words not only must one not become irritated in return, but one must not even become agitated. Starets Silouan also recommends not only that one not accuse his enemies, but also not to think badly about them and even not to judge them at all [39]. Rather than accuse others, one must feel guilty oneself.

But I Say To You, Love Your EnemiesFor St. Silouan, the love of enemies supposes that one forgives them their offenses and prays for them. Yet forgiving is not yet loving; prayer can precede love and not yet be a manifestation of it: “When I was still in the world I liked to forgive with all my heart,” he said. “I forgave easily and I liked to pray for those who had offended me, but when I came to the monastery, while I was still a novice, I received a great grace and it taught me to love my enemies.”

It is in compassion that St. Silouan sees one of the principal dimensions of the love of enemies. Such compassion consists first of all in feeling pity for them. This pity is partly a result of being conscious that those who harm us or want to do so have a sick soul (in the traditional patristic teaching, the passions are spiritual illnesses) and act under a demonic influence; in this situation, they suffer profoundly. To the question: “How can a subordinate keep a peaceful soul if his superior is a violent and a bad man?” the Starets answers: “An irascible man endures great suffering caused by a bad spirit. He suffers torment because of his pride. The subordinate must know this and pray for the sick soul of his superior.”

On the other hand this pity results from the knowledge that he who causes harm and is opposed to the truth or doesn’t know it, lives aloof from God, deprives himself of His gifts, wanders far from the way to salvation, is heading for the plains of hell, a beginning of which he already suffers here on earth. “The soul has compassion for enemies and prays for them because they have wandered away from the truth and are going to hell. That is love for enemies.” “A good man thinks: each man who has wandered far from the truth is going to his fall, and this is why he feels pity for him… He who has been taught by the Holy Spirit to love, will suffer all his life for those who don’t save themselves; many tears run down his cheeks for man, and the divine grace gives him strength to love his enemies … Understand, it is so simple. They are to be pitied those who don’t know God and are opposed to Him; my heart suffers for them and tears run down my cheeks. We can clearly see Paradise and the torments: we know this through the Holy Spirit. And the Lord Himself said: the Kingdom of God is in you (Lk 17:21). So eternal life already starts here on earth; and the eternal torments too start here.”

We see here that pity is accompanied by compassion, that it consists in suffering what others are suffering as if one felt it oneself, in showing true solidarity with them in their suffering, in putting oneself in their place in their troubles: an authentic and unlimited love. The Starets himself gives us an example of his compassion which is deeply lived; it is accompanied by pain and tears and is permanent. It is as deep as what one feels for one’s loved ones when they are in pain or trouble: “The Lord teaches us to love enemies in such a way that we will feel compassion for them as for our own children.” We must, says the Starets, be compassionate not only for our own enemies and the enemies of truth, but for the demons who suffer infernal pains for turning away from God and denying Him in their voluntary deprivation of heavenly goods, their refusal to love God and to be loved by Him. “Taught by the Holy Spirit, one will feel compassion even for demons for they are separated from goodness, they have lost humility and God’s love.”

For the Starets compassion for enemies is linked to the compassion one must have for all creatures without exception: “One must feel compassion for every person, every creature and all of God’s creation.”

“The Spirit of God teaches us to love all that exists, and the soul feels compassion for each being, and also loves enemies and pities demons, because in their fall they were detached from the good.” Compassion makes no exceptions. “There are people who wish damnation and the torments in the fire of hell for their enemies or enemies of the Church. They think in this way because they haven’t learned from the Holy Spirit to love God. He who has learned love weeps for the whole world. You say: ‘Let him burn in the fire of hell!’ But I ask you: ‘If God gave you a good place in Paradise and that from there you could see in the fire the man to whom you wished this torment, wouldn’t you feel pity for him, whoever he is, even if he is an enemy to the Church?’ Or do you have a heart of metal?”

The Starets had so much pity for those who have to endure the sufferings of hell and felt so much compassion for them because he had himself had the experience of the beatitude of Paradise and of the dreadful wretchedness of hell, and he knew the painful distance that separated both. For him, the love of enemies implies wishing and doing good to them. He who loves his enemies wants what is best for them — that they should repent, know God, and obtain the grace of salvation. “We must only have one thought,” says St. Silouan, “that all be saved.”

Another factor of the love of enemies on which St. Silouan insists is prayer. “It is a great work in God’s eyes to pray for those who offend us and who make us suffer.” For the Starets, prayer for and love of enemies are intimately connected: “The Lord has given on earth the Holy Spirit who teaches the soul to love our enemies and to pray for them.” “Lord, teach us through your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears.” “Lord, as You prayed for your enemies, teach us also, through the Holy Spirit, to love our enemies”; “the soul that has been taught to pray by the grace of God, loves with compassion all creatures, and especially man.”

It is indeed prayer that awakens the love of enemies and at the same time, results from it and is a witness to it. To pray for enemies first of all permits one to obtain from God the grace to love them: “One can only love one’s enemies through the grace of the Holy Spirit. That’s why, as soon as someone has hurt you, pray God for him.” “I continuously beg the Lord to grant me to love enemies… Day and night I ask the Lord for this love.”

It is through prayer that it is possible to remain peaceful before our enemies and their offenses. “To have a peaceful soul, one must get used to loving him who has offended us and to pray immediately for him. The soul cannot have peace if it doesn’t with all its strength ask the Lord the gift of loving all men.”

Prayer is what permits us to retain the grace of loving enemies once it has been obtained. Prayer not only awakens the love of enemies, the love of enemies also awakens prayer. “The man who hasn’t been taught by the Holy Spirit to love will certainly not pray for his enemies.” The pity and compassion that one feels for enemies, conscious that they have wandered away from God, are deprived of divine goods and are heading for their ruin, lead one to pray for their escape from the ills they will have to suffer. They also lead one to pray God for them to repent and turn away from their bad ways, for them to know him and be saved. “The Lord has given on earth the Holy Spirit who teaches the soul to love enemies and pray for them so that they will be saved. That is love.” “The soul feels compassion for enemies and prays for them because they have wandered away from the truth and are going to hell.” “The man who carries in him the Holy Spirit (has a heart) full of compassion for all of God’s creatures and especially for the people who don’t know God or are opposed to Him, and who for this reason, will go into the tormenting fire. He prays for them day and night, more than for himself for them all to repent and know the Lord.” “Lord, all peoples are the work of Your hands; turn them away from hate and wickedness to repentance so that they all may know Your love.”

Because it proceeds from compassion, but also because it is bound to the feeling full of compunction, of being oneself a sinner, and even the worst of men, prayer for enemies is accompanied by tears. This is a sign of its profundity, its sincerity, and of the fact that it is bound to authentic love.




1:   St. John Chrysostom gives the most systematic classification, with nine steps (Homilies on St. Mat. XVIII,4)

2:   Ibid, Hom. on Genesis XXVII,8

  1. Ibid, Hom. on St. Mat. XVIII,4
  2. Ascetical Discourse, 58
  3. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on I Cor XVI,6; St. Mark the Monk, On those who think they are justified by their works, 45; St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Discourse 56; St. Simeon the New Theologian, Theological, Gnostic and practical chapters III,29
  4. St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on Charity I,38,72
  5. St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Discourse 56; St. Simeon the New Theologian, Theological chapters I,92
  6. St. Basil the Great, Small Rule, 176; St. John of Gaza, Letters 383, 680; St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Letters 7
  7. St. Simeon the New Theologian, Theological chapters III,29; St. John of Gaza, Letters 383
  8. Apophtegmata XVI,19; St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Letters 7; Ignaty Briantchaninov, On the Jesus Prayer, III
  9. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on St. Mat XVIII,4; St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Discourse 56,58
  10. Ibid, St. John Chrysostom
  11. St. John Chrysostom, St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on charity II,50
  12. Ibid; Ignaty Briantchaninov, On the Jesus Prayer, III
  13. footnote: The Ladder XXX,8
  14. St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on charity IV,35; St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Discourse 56,58
  15. Ibid, St. Isaac the Syrian
  16. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on St. Mat. XVIII,4; St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on charity IV, 84
  17. St. Maximus the Confessor, ibid; St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Spiritual Instructions VIII,94
  18. footnote: Ignaty Briantchaninov, On the Jesus Prayer, III
  19. St. John Chrysostom, Homilies in Mat. XVIII,4; St. Mark the Monk, On those who think they can be justified by their works, 45
  20. St. John Chrysostom, On virginity, I
  21. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on Genesis XXVII,8; on Mat. XVIII,5
  22. St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Discourse, 56
  23. Ibid
  24. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on Genesis IV,16; XXVII,8; Hom. on St. Mat. XVIII, 3-4; Hom. on St. John, LXXI,3; Hom. on I Cor. V,4; XVI,6; Hom. on the Cross and the good thief I,5; II,5; Hom. on text “Father, if it be possible…” 4; Barsanuphios, Letters 31,97; St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Spiritual Instructions VIII,94; Letters 6; St. Simeon the New Theologian, Theological, Gnostic and Practical chapters I,92; Ignaty Briantchaninov, On the Jesus Prayer, III
  25. St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Spiritual Instructions VIII,94; St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on charity III,90
  26. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on Genesis IV,16
  27. St. Simeon the New Theologian, Theological … chapters III,25; Ignaty Briantchaninov, On the Jesus Prayer III
  28. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on Genesis IV,7; St. Mat. XVIII,4; Romans XXVII,3
  29. John Chrysostom, Hom. on Genesis IV,7; Commentary on psalm 7,4; Hom. on St. Mat. XVIII,3-4; Hom. on Eph. VII,4; Hom. on the Acts of the Apostles L,4; St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries in charity, I,7
  30. St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries of charity, IV,40] He who loves his enemies not only does not rejoice about their failures and the harm that happens to them nor is he saddened to see them honored or pleased, but he is grieved to see them in trouble or sorrow, and he rejoices for their success and sincerely wishes their happiness and in all circumstances tries to satisfy them. [footnote: Apophtegmata, Alphabetical series, Or. 11; St. Dorotheos, Spir. Inst. VIII,93
  31. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on the words “Because we have the same spirit of faith…” II,8; Hom. on Lazarus II,5; Hom. on St. John LX,5
  32. Of course not their nature as sinners, but their human nature, worthy of respect and love because created in the image of God. In his conception of charity, St. Maximus constantly refers to this reality on which is founded the fundamental equality of all men, and so the duty to treat them all equally.
  33. As men created in the image of God and children of the same Father.
  34. St. Simeon the New Theologian, Theological… chapters I,92
  35. Hom. on the Acts of the Apostles IX,4
  36. Letters, 2
  37. If, being the Superior or Hegumen of a monastery, one has the responsibility to judge someone, it must be done with compassion and with the goal of helping him to correct himself.


Jean-Claude LARCHET

Extract from the book of  Jean-Claude Larchet, Saint Silouane de l’Athos, Éditions du Cerf, Paris 2001.

English translation published in In Commmunion, 10, July 1997.