Discerning Friends and Enemies

Discerning Friends and Enemies December 9, 2021

It is not as easy as it seems to discern between friend and foe. In a world that seems hellbent on destroying itself, a society obsessed with annihilating one another, discerning the difference is vitally important to healthy and vibrant living.

Why is it so hard to discover the true nature of our relationships? How do we get this wrong and what can we do to mitigate our mistakes?

We are so susceptible to deceit, we are often victimized by it even from ourselves. We are sure this friend is a good friend. And then we are betrayed, hurt, lost, confused. We are so certain this enemy hates us, only to find they actually admire and care for us. The Snape effect.



I discovered this really interesting passage in The Bible recently. It is in the Book of Luke and the disciples are annoyed/protective because someone is doing something in Jesus’ name but is not part of their group. Jesus says, “whoever is not against me is for me”.

The phrasing hit me because it is the exact opposite of the way we think about discerning friends and enemies. We tend to think, you are either all for me or you are my enemy. Jesus seems to be saying here, you are either all against me or you are my friend. 

An important distinction. The burden of proof is on the front half of both of these statements: “whoever is not with me is against me” and “whoever is not against me is for me”. The latter part of the statements is the foundation, the assumptive starting point.

So, if language matters, the way we think about this dichotomy will set the stage for the way we interpret friend or foe. You either have to prove your complete fidelity or you have to prove your complete antagonism.

Imagine a world where we assumed everyone is a friend until proven otherwise! It seems clear that we live in a society where the opposite is the case. And that makes a world of difference.


Measure By Mission

Some of you are astute Biblical scholars who know that Jesus ALSO said “whoever is not with me is against me”. Both of the statements from the last section are in Scripture. So, is this a contradiction? Or a paradox?

Obviously context matters. Which we will come back to in a couple paragraphs. But I propose Jesus is actually saying the same thing in both phrases, strange as that may seem. Because no matter which of the phrases from the previous section you perceive to be central for discerning friend and foe, Jesus is trying to communicate the heart behind true discernment.

For many of us, the real key to discernment is emotion. It is a personal preference or desire. So, when someone does or says something I like, something that makes me feel good, we give them a mark toward friendship. If they say something we dislike, they get a mark toward foe.

I often tell people that Kylie is the person who makes me laugh, feel encouraged, loved, valued, etc., more than any other person does for me. She is also the person who most annoys me, I struggle to understand and be understood by, and says things that hurt me. Love is both sides of the coin.

Our lazy discernment tries to quickly put people in one silo or the other, based on our circumstantial emotion. This is the route to deception. For someone who says something flattering today cannot sustain that forever.

Which brings us back to the context of Jesus’ two statements. In both, he is talking about mission. Mission is central to his discernment. In one, he is responding to the disciples being annoyed that someone else is on mission but not in the in-crowd. In the other, he is rebuking Satan’s opposing mission.

For too many of us, our emotions are our mission. The great cause of our life is to feel good, right now, all the time.

This undermines our truest, deepest desires and the true aim for which we were created. Mission is the cause greater than ourselves for which we aspire. A friend is someone who is or could, join us in our transcendent, meaningful, good mission. An enemy is someone incapable or cosmically unwilling to join the cause of good. And perhaps before discerning whether others are friend and foe in this regard, we ought to explore whether or not we are truly living on mission.

With a clarified, transcendent mission, a perspective focused on unified and diversified expressions of that mission, and a little bit of patience and commitment to seeing the best in people, we will be able to discern the difference between friend and enemy more effectively.

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