What a veteran taught me about love

February 3rd, 2021

A good friend of mine — we’ll call him Jeff — is a highly decorated combat veteran. Jeff has told me about some of his wartime experiences. Sharing these stories is something he does rarely. And he discusses these things with only a small, trusted circle.

Jeff watched friends die. He killed people in brief, intense firefights and during hours-long pitched battles. What struck me most profoundly, though, is what Jeff said about life in a war setting.

The presence of enemies defines your world. The sense of danger never fully goes away. There are threats everywhere. All the time. In a cruel irony, the enemy defines your life.

Someone you’ve not yet seen, or not yet identified as an enemy, is always looking for an opportunity to harm you. There are no genuinely safe places. You can never let your guard down completely. And to survive you have to be ready to react to the enemy without hesitation.

Like many combat veterans, Jeff struggled to reenter civilian life. He had learned to respond to the world as a place littered with enemies. His perceptions and reactions had become second nature. Shedding them would be a serious challenge.

Jeff’s stories were on my mind as I walked the aisles of a local grocery. I glimpsed a young couple — they were in their late teens, maybe 20 — heading for the checkout lane.

Neither was athletic. The man did not seem to be with law enforcement. A sidearm was strapped to his right hip.

This is an open-carry state. Gun-toting citizens are a familiar sight in Louisiana. I was neither surprised nor especially alarmed.

But seeing a person armed for a grocery store run in this middle-class neighborhood got me thinking. Not so much about this particular person’s motivations. But about how our spiritual posture shapes our perceptions of and our responses to the world around us.

Paradoxically, we will become increasingly insecure the more we focus our attention and devote our energies to protecting ourselves from or destroying our enemies. A spirit obsessed with undoing its enemies gradually undoes itself with anxiety and manifests itself in aggression, hostility and even violence.

People whose souls are held captive by such impulses might readily join angry mobs, but they will find it much more difficult to form intimate, nurturing relationships. This is not the kind of life any of us genuinely crave. We were created to love and be loved.

Jesus comes to liberate us from life-denying spiritual patterns that frankly exceed the power of any merely human self-help program.

Once, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus exorcised an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue in Capernaum. For the rabbinic mind, “unclean” came in gradations. The height of unclean is corpse unclean. In other words, an unclean spirit is a life-denying, death-embracing spirit. It is a destructive and self-destructive soul.

The story tells us that walking with Jesus liberates us. Transforms the algorithm of our souls. When we follow Jesus, love becomes the essential rhythm of our souls instead of fear and animosity. (Mark 1:21-28)

Elsewhere, Jesus told us, “Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44) You see, Jesus was very realistic about life on this planet. Some people will make us their enemies. We cannot control how others will perceive us or act toward us.

That leaves us with a couple of choices. We can spend all our time and energy being the enemy of our enemy. Putting up defenses, planning assaults, and preparing counterattacks. In that case, our enemy will define our life.

Or, we can love. Love even our enemies. Love will not necessarily make our enemies into our friends.

But it will set us free from fear and hate. And then God’s love for us — the love we can spend even on our enemies — will define our life.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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