“Put away your sword,” Jesus told a disciple poised to defend him from armed forces sent by political leaders in the Garden of Gethsemane. The king of heaven and earth could have commanded the angels to destroy his enemies and prevent his arrest and execution (Matt. 26:53). Instead, motivated by love, he hung on the cross with nails in his hands and feet until he drew his last breath, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
The cross proved the power of grace.
The cross also underscored one of the most unexpected commands in Scripture: “I’m telling you to love your enemies,” Jesus said. “Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves” (Matt. 5:43–45 MSG).
What if Jesus meant to extend grace not only to your external enemies but also to the perceived enemies within you?
You might prefer to get rid of the parts of your soul that carry unwanted thoughts and feelings. But is it possible that, with God’s help, they might become your greatest allies? Remember: every part of you is valuable and worthy of your compassion, and God loves and wants to do something beneficial through each one.
Think of King David’s enemies within: the covetous lover who sent for Bathsheba, the conniving rebel who killed Uriah, the angry commander who struck fear in those who served him (2 Sam. 11). God had given David talent and passion to put to work for great purpose, and yet unruly parts of his soul nearly destroyed his legacy. In the famous Twenty-third Psalm, David wrote that God prepared a table for him in the presence of his enemies. Would God have wanted David to welcome to this table his internal enemies—the longing, rebellious, and indignant parts of his soul?
Eventually David befriended his exiled longing and his angry protectors and redirected their energy for a higher cause, turning these internal enemies into powerful allies. Are you willing to befriend the parts of your soul you wish would go away—your inner critic, your sadness, your unruly envy? We know it’s counterintuitive. And, isn’t it just like something Jesus would ask you to do?*
What is the enemy inside of you?
Take a moment and consider your internal dialogue. Do you ever notice thoughts like these:
- What’s wrong with you? You should be more like her.
- He’s so successful. If you had half a brain, you’d be where he is.
- You deserve this bad thing that’s happened.
- You’ll never be as good as other people.
You wouldn’t say these things to your worst enemy, but somehow, a voice in your head has picked up a habit of treating parts of you terribly. You berate yourself for your envy, your pride, your perceived shortcomings. You hate the fact that you’re not better. . . smarter. . . . kinder . . .healthier. . . more lovable. . . We all do it on some level. Welcome to your shaming inner critic, the part of your soul that mercilessly targets your vulnerabilities—your pain, limitations, insecurities, and struggles—and parades them in front of you. Often this exercise takes the form of demoralizing comparisons to others.
What might surprise you is this: Your inner critic is trying to help. In its misguided way, this part of you actually thinks it’s motivating you, by identifying perceived enemies within you. It thinks that if it stopped telling you how much better you could be, you’d become mediocre, lazy, pathetic, or unlovable.
But, the truth is, this inner critic hasn’t fully comprehended Jesus counterintuitive message:
You don’t change in the context of criticism. You change in the context of God’s transformational love.
An Exercise in Loving Your Inner Enemies
The next time you struggle with beating yourself up, try this exercise:
1. Notice your self-talk. Write it down. Be honest with yourself. Get it into the light. What are the perceived enemies inside of you that you tend to beat yourself up for?
2. Get curious about this shaming inner critic. How long has it been with you? Did you internalize its voice from someone else? Or is it just an old habit you’ve never been able to break? Getting curious about this critical voice gives you much-needed distance from it.
3. Show compassion for your inner critic. Doing so may sound counterintuitive – but like a hurting child who is acting out, this part of you needs your love, as well as some healthy internal boundaries. Extend it your appreciation for the ways it’s been trying to help you be your best self. Then, ask it to let you lead, with God’s help.
4. Write a “holy reframe.” Now, help your inner critic change its tone and harness all that energy in productive ways. Next to each terrible thing this voice whispers to you, practice a reframe. Here are some examples:
- “You should be more like her” becomes “I am God’s workmanship” (Eph. 2:10).
- “He’s so successful. If you had half a brain, you’d be where he is.” becomes “I’m not where I want to be yet. But each day, I’m going to do my best to take the next step.”
- “You deserve this bad thing that’s happened.” becomes “I’ve made mistakes. And I’m also a beautiful soul made in God’s image” (Gen. 1:27).
- “You’ll never be as good as other people.” becomes “No one can take my place.”
Your inner critic needs to learn that berating you isn’t the answer. This part of you needs to be trained to see you through God’s eyes.
The idea of loving your inner enemy may counter everything you’ve been taught about how to handle problematic emotions, but criticizing and rejecting parts of yourself doesn’t make things better. What does work is befriending the aspects of yourself you most dislike, so you can win them over.
It’s about extending yourself hospitality.
As Henri Nouwen wrote, “Hospitality . . . means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 71.)
As you extend hospitality to difficult parts of your soul, you create space for internal transformation.*
*Sections of this article are excerpts from Chapter 5 of my book with with Kimberly Miller: Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies
For more information about loving your inner enemies:
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
Do you think it is possible to love your internal enemies? Have you ever thought about it this way before?