How should a Christian respond when an “enemy” falls?
Like any human being, a Christian is not immune to the temptations of gloating, celebrating, or even berating with an “I told you so” or two. Certainly we all will experience a heavenly moment when the wicked who have wronged us face a righteous judge (we will face Him too), but it is also possible that those who’ve wounded us will face consequences here on earth. It could be through prison time, termination of their employment, or public embarrassment. Or the “darker side” of consequences like physical injury, destruction of livelihood, or even death. In all of these, there is a part of our flesh that wants to pummel our enemies into oblivion. We want the arm they took from us, and then we want to take their legs too. For believers, this heart posture must be put in check.
I remember the moment a report came into me via text message. Not just any report, but a juicy report that fed my flesh the kind of a dish it loves; an “enemy combatant” from my past had experienced a painful and embarrassing event that exposed them for the person I already knew them to be. I felt vindicated — even, happy. I thought to myself, “Yes! finally! You got what you deserved!”
But the celebration did not last long. As quickly as my flesh fueled my prideful joy, The Holy Spirit rushed in with conviction and I was struck with a feeling that something was not right in my heart. I knew that I needed to hear from God concerning my reaction. I opened my Bible and Proverbs 24:17 did the talking.
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles”
I had read that proverb many, many times. Only this time, it hit like a ton of bricks. I quickly realized it was not time to throw a party filled with celebratory vindication. It was time to confess my sin (1 John 1:9), and pray.
When navigating these kinds of situations, self-reflection is vital. At least two questions can be helpful.
Am I Following The Model of Jesus?
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught numerous truths that helped to guide His original audience, and us today. At one point, His words cause us to pause and re-think justice when it comes to interpersonal relationships and conflict. He declared,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48).
Jesus consistently taught and modeled self-denial. Any form of seeking revenge or gloating in the pain of others as form of retaliatory justice is not how followers of Jesus are to operate. Such behavior reveals a heart that is seeking “self.” He challenged both His followers and His detractors with this truth. To follow Him means you will be others-focused, and yes, even enemies-focused, in your prayers, reactions, service, and even in your love. The goal is not that you crush them in defeat, but rather, that they might be won over by our witness for the gospel or stand before God without excuse (Romans 10:14-21).
Am I Overlooking My Own Sin?
It’s one thing to desire justice to prevail and law and order to be maintained. That is good for society. However, there is a vein of our culture that demands justice for ourselves, and judgment on others, without ever looking in the mirror of our hearts. We are so quick to point the finger at those who hurt us, but is it possible that their moment of consequence is an opportunity for us to confess sin as well?
When our enemies fall and we desire to celebrate their pain and embarrassment, we are actively denying our own need for the gospel and our own need for grace. The Pharisees were experts at this.
In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus warns, “Judge not, that you be judged. For the with the judgment, you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure, you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Jesus spoke these strong words to both His disciples, and the religious leaders who were experts at self-serving forms of justice and elevating their own righteousness. Without fear, Jesus confronted their hypocrisy and taught His disciples that self-denial is the very essence of what it means to follow Him. Self-denial includes looking in the mirror, facing your own sin, and being humbled by the downfall of others because it could have been you too.
It is impossible to say that we love Jesus and not obey His commands (John 14:15). One of those commands is to love our enemies — which is an impossible task to obey without Jesus’ help.
When an enemy falls and you are tempted to gloat, look to the gospel for humble hope. It is in Christ alone that you will find the strength to love your enemy, and to pray for those who persecute you.
Dale Thackrah is the Senior Executive Pastor at Redeemer Bible Church in Gilbert, Arizona. He holds an M.A. from Biola University and is a certified biblical counselor who specializes in conflict resolution and financial stewardship. He lives in Queen Creek, AZ with his wife and two children.