“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ said Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount. “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” (Matthew 5:43).
If you’ve ever wondered why many people refused to follow Jesus during his earthly ministry, you have to look no further than that verse.
In our day, we have watered down the term “enemy” so much that this command has lost much of its shock value. Today, “enemy” is used primarily in reference to people who are rude to us or treat us unkindly. We even use the portmanteau “frenemy” to refer to an associate pretending to be a friend or someone who really is a friend but also a rival.
But in Jesus day, the Jews in Israel had real enemies. For the entirety of their existence as a people they had been fending off enemies — from their slavery in Egypt to the state of occupation by their latest enemy, the Roman Empire. Telling them to love and pray for enemies was akin to telling the Christians in Iraq to love and pray for ISIS.
And yet, that is exactly what Jesus was saying. When Jesus gave the command to love and pray for our enemies he knew it would one day require praying for Islamic extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda who murder his Bride. Jesus was saying that when we think of those people, we no longer even see them as enemies. As John MacArthur explains, “we are not to be enemies of those who may be enemies to us. From their perspective, we are their enemies; but from our perspective, they should be our neighbors.”
But how do we do that? How should we pray for these neighbors who want to murder members of our family? Such a task is difficult, but there are three specific ways we can pray for those who are engaged in persecution against Christians:
1. Pray for their conversion
There are two primary reasons we don’t pray for the conversion of Islamic extremists. The first reason is that we believe it is absurd to think they’ll become Christians. The second reason is that we fear they might actually convert.
The first reason is more common, since praying the terrorists will convert seems like a useless plea. We recognize the theological truth that God can do for them what he did for us: provide the gift of grace that they might be saved (Ephesians 2:8). But we look at the situation “realistically” and tell ourselves that the probability of their genuine conversion is so close to zero that it would be a waste of our time (and God’s) to even bother to ask.
No doubt such conversions are unlikely and rare. Yet we should pray for their conversion anyway. If we truly love our enemy, how could we not at least petition God on their behalf?
Another, less frequent, reason we don’t pray for their conversion is because we fear they may actually repent. Like Jonah in Nineveh, we want our enemies to receive their just desserts, not mercy and forgiveness. Consider all of the Christians who dutifully prayed for the Nazis. How would they have felt if they discovered that Hitler, in the moments prior to his death, had truly repented of his sins and was forgiven by God? Many of those Christians would have felt cheated, as if it was unfair of God to forgive such horrific crimes. They would likely want to complain, as Jonah did when God spared the Ninevites, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2)?
But it is precisely because he is a gracious and compassionate God that we ought to pray for the conversion of our enemies. How could we do anything less than ask God to show them the same grace shown to us?
2. Pray the evil they do may be restrained
There is no dichotomy in praying for the good of our enemy and praying that their evil actions be restrained. It is to their benefit as well as ours that they be prevented from committing more evil. For those who have hardened their heart against God, it would be better that their life was shortened than for them to continue to persecute his children.
The protection of innocents from slaughter may require human governments to take military action against that Islamic extremists. We are warranted in supporting the just use of force in restraining such evil. But we should remember that while the death of the terrorists may be the only effective way to restrain their actions, we should not rejoice in their suffering or death (Proverbs 24:17).
3. Pray they will receive divine justice
Just as we seek justice on earth from duly established governmental authorities, we can seek the divine justice of our holy God. As John N. Day says, “hereas love and blessing are the characteristic ethic of believers of both testaments, cursing and calling for divine vengeance are their extreme ethic and may be voiced in extreme circumstances, against hardened, deceitful, violent, immoral, unjust sinners.”
In asking that divine justice be done, we should be careful to guard our motives. Praying for divine justice can be a way to circumvent our duty to love our enemy. While we must leave vengeance to God, we must not forget what is commanded of us. As Paul writes in Romans 12:19-21:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the order of our prayers, asking for divine justice should be included as the “last resort” option, a plea for doing what is necessary for those who will neither turn to God nor turn away from doing evil.
As former enemies of God, we should be gracious and grateful that we are allowed to pray for our current enemies, secure in the knowledge that Jesus will hear us. We should be thankful enough for the grace of God that we want even our enemies to receive it too. But if they refuse and harden their hearts against the one who would spare them, then we must ask they receive the divine retribution due everyone apart from the righteousness of Christ.
Additional Resources: In discussions of praying for our enemies it’s important to consider the role and relevance of the imprecatory prayers found in the Bible. The topic was too complex to address in this brief article, so for more on that topic I recommend Sam Storms’ essay “Imprecations in the Psalms.”
Post by Pastor Tim – Luke 6:27 says, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” These words gained new meaning to me as I walked through the Korean War Museum last month in Seoul, Korea.
What I found particularly interesting is that when the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea never signed the armistice. And because they never signed the armistice, in the eyes of many Koreans the two countries are still technically at war. You see, the South originally wanted to continue to fight and unite the two countries once and for all instead of ending the war with the country divided.
What makes this so fascinating, is that over the last few decades South Korea has provided more aid to North Korea than any other country. While still at war, the South gives aid to their enemies in the North!
While this might seem incredulous at first, it shouldn’t be a concept that’s so foreign to us as Christians. In the Whole Life Offering, Pastor Foley notes that doing good to our enemies should be a core discipline in Christianity. In fact, Jesus did good towards us in that he died for us while we were still His enemies (Romans 5:6-10), and this is the good that we are now to mirror to others.
But even with the example of South Korea and the more important one of Christ, it may still be difficult to know how to begin doing good to our enemies. That’s why in our Colorado DOTW Congregation, each member is beginning to do good by praying for one of his/her enemies each day this week. The Prayers for Enemies web-site has been a great starting point to learn some of the churches’ more traditional prayers concerning their enemies.
Prayer may not seem all that earth-shattering, but it’s exactly what the Scriptures tell us to do (Matthew 5:44) and what Jesus himself modeled when He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).”
Prayer is so central and foundation to Work of Mercy of doing good, because it not only has the capacity to change the heart of our enemy and ourselves, but it also helps us to understand the good that God wants us to do.
And in order to get that “understanding” part, we have to be willing to learn from and reflect on our prayers. Here are some questions that I will be reflecting on and I would invite you to do the same after you’ve prayed for your enemies for a week.
- How are Jesus’ commands in Matthew 5:43-48 related to the Work of Mercy of doing good?
- How did I specifically pray for my enemy this week?
- How has my life been affected by praying for my enemy?
- What have I sensed the Lord asking me to do in relation to my enemy?
What does it mean to pray for our enemies? For the terrorist taking many lives in response to other grave wrongs, for the known or unknown assailant afflicting apparently senseless violence, for the thief who breaks into your house in the middle of the day and steals your things and sense of safety, for the boss who treats you carelessly and with disrespect, for the frenemy who pretends friendship but spreads lies about you behind your back, for anyone who does us harm.
- 1 Lord, are we really to pray for THAT person?
- 2 I can hardly bear these words of Jesus.
- 3 1. Pray with love
- 4 2. Pray in silence
- 5 3. Pray as you would pray for yourself
- 6 4. Pray for mercy
- 7 5. Pray for transformation
- 8 Be Honest with God
- 9 Use God’s Words
- 10 Wait for Him to Work
- 11 Pursue Peace through Prayer
Lord, are we really to pray for THAT person?
In 3 Ways to Pray for Our Enemies, the author outlines praying for those who persecute Christians by:
- Praying for their conversion to Christ–that God might be merciful to them in the same way that we have received God’s grace.
- Praying that the evil they do might be restrained–both for their benefit and for the benefit of those who suffer.
- Praying they will receive divine justice–not to get around the call to love our enemies, but as a plea of last resort.
Is this enough to pray for our enemies? And what if, instead of outright persecution, your “enemy” is the one who verbally abuses you, who continually finds fault, who may even be part of your own family or church community?
The Psalms include prayers of lament against one’s enemies.
1 Lord, how numerous are my enemies!
Many attack me.2 Many say about me, “God will not deliver him.”– Psalm 3:1-2
Many go further with prayers of vengeance:
8 May his days be few!
May another take his job!9 May his children be fatherless,and his wife a widow!10 May his children roam around begging,asking for handouts as they leave their ruined home!11 May the creditor seize all he owns!May strangers loot his property!12 May no one show him kindness!May no one have compassion on his fatherless children!13 May his descendants be cut off!May the memory of them be wiped out by the time the next generation arrives! – Psalm 109:8-13
7 Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.They said, “Tear it down, tear it down,right to its very foundation!”8 O daughter Babylon, soon to be devastated!How blessed will be the one who repays youfor what you dished out to us!9 How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock!– Psalm 137:7-9
Is it really okay to pray for our enemies in these ways?To pray that they lose their job and then their life? To pray that even their children will suffer cruelly? These prayers are recorded in Scripture, but are they meant as models of prayer, or as examples of people pushed to extremes, as illustrations of how violence gives rise to more violence?
When Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray, Jesus responds:
9 So pray this way:
Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored,
10 may your kingdom come,may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.11 Give us today our daily bread,12 and forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
– Matthew 6:9-13
Later on the cross, Jesus prays for his own enemies in just this way. Instead of prayers of lament and vengeance as in the Psalms, he prays for those who crucify him:
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
– Luke 23:34
I can hardly bear these words of Jesus.
I would be calling for release and vindication, calling on those legions of angels and on God’s justice to reign. Given Jesus’ innocence and the cruelty of his crucifixion, given all of the good he had done in his life and the injustice of his death, his words simply don’t make sense–at least no earthly sense that I can tell.
Is Jesus’ way then, the way of heaven? Does Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer and his own example on the cross teach us how to pray for our enemies today?
I’m still working this out in my own mind and life, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far on how to pray for our enemies even when we may not want to, even when it seems impossible.
1. Pray with love
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven. . . . – Matthew 5:43-45
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away. Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you. – Luke 6:27-31
2. Pray in silence
From Barbara Cawthorne Crafton in Let Us Bless the Lord, Year One cited by Spirituality and Practice:
The madder you are about it, the more assiduously you should avoid any words at all in your prayer for your enemy. Leave the details to God. God doesn’t need our suggestions anyway — he is fully informed about our affairs. We don’t need to tell God things. God knows.
3. Pray as you would pray for yourself
From Prayer for Enemies by Anselm of Canterbury (1022-1109):
You alone, Lord, are mighty;
you alone are merciful;
whatever you make me desire for my enemies,
give it to them and give the same back to me,
and if what I ask for them at any time
is outside the rule of charity,
whether through weakness, ignorance, or malice,
good Lord, do not give it to them
and do not give it back to me.
You who are the true light, lighten their darkness;
you who are the whole truth, correct their errors;
you who are the true life, give life to their souls.
4. Pray for mercy
As Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them,” I appreciate the example of a young Iraqi woman, Christina Shabo, who prays:
have mercy on ISIS and on the whole world.
5. Pray for transformation
From Catholic Online:
We pray for our enemies and those who oppose us.
With the help of the Holy Spirit,
may all people learn to work together
for that justice which brings true and lasting peace.
I can’t claim any expertise in praying for my enemies – after all that’s why spiritual practice is called practice. But at least this is a start, and I invite you to join me.
You may also want to check out the other articles in my occasional How to Pray series:
How to Pray Powerfully for Peace
How to Pray for Public Tragedy
How to Pray About Work When You Can’t Find the Words
How to Pray for a Wedding Dinner
How to Pray About Mental Illness When You Can’t Find the Words
How to Pray for Families Living with Mental Illness
How to Pray for the Syrian Refugee Crisis When You Can’t Find the Words
How to Pray for Peace When You Can’t Find the Words
Writing/Reflection Prompt: What helps you to pray for your enemies even when you don’t want to?
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My co-worker’s words were unkind and untrue. How could Beth say such a thing about me? She’s a Christian. She should know better. All day her words simmered in my soul. Each time my mind hit the replay button, my eyes narrowed and my jaw tightened.
That night as I lay in bed, I thought about what I’d do the next time I saw Beth. Avoid her? Confront her? Pretend nothing had happened?
At some point during my mental rant, the Holy Spirit reminded me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:44: “Pray for those who spitefully use you…” (NKJV). Humph. I’d rather tell Beth exactly what I think and complain about her to other people. I’d rather harbor a grudge and avoid her. But the Holy Spirit kept poking me: If you want to do what pleases and glorifies Jesus, pray for those who hurt you.
“Lord,” I said, “please show me how to pray for Beth with a sincere heart.”
Be Honest with God
The next morning I settled into my favorite chair to have my devotions, but my heart was restless. First, I wrote Beth’s name on my daily prayer list. Then I admitted my feelings to God. “Lord, I don’t like Beth or what she did to me. She’s difficult to get along with anyway, and now she’s spreading gossip about me.” God knew what had happened. I didn’t need to airbrush what she’d done or camouflage how I felt about it.
Next I confessed my unwillingness to change my attitude. “Lord, I can’t get over this. I’m too angry, too hurt. I don’t want to pray for Beth, but I want to obey you.” I reminded myself that Jesus’ blood had washed away her sin as it had washed away mine. God loves her as much as he loves me. I said, “Lord, help me see what you see when you look at Beth.”
Use God’s Words
After I prayed, I opened my Bible to Matthew 5. I read Jesus’ words in verses 43-46:
“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?”
“Okay, Lord,” I prayed, “work in my heart and in Beth’s. Show us that we’re on the same team—your team. Heal this wound in my heart. Heal the wounds in her heart. Help us both to be the daughters you’ve designed and redeemed us to be.”
Next I turned to Colossians 1. I often pray verses 9-11 for my children, so why not use Paul’s prayer as a guide for this situation with Beth?
“Lord, Give us wise minds and spirits attuned to your will. Help us to move toward a thorough understanding of how you work and how you want us to work together. Enable us to make you proud of the way we honor you in our workplace. Give us the strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy” (MSG paraphrased).
In the days that followed, I continued to incorporate God’s Word into my prayers for Beth. When I read Psalm 37, I asked God to give her the desires of her heart (v. 4). When the day’s reading was James 1, I asked God to give her wisdom (v. 5) and to help her be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (v. 19). I prayed the same things for myself.
Wait for Him to Work
As I prayed for Beth, my anger and resentment decreased. At work, when we passed each other or sat in a meeting together, I greeted her with less animosity churning in my stomach. I asked about her kids and her husband. Yes, the conversation between us was awkward at first, but gradually we both relaxed.
Several weeks passed. One day Beth and I were both working in the copier room. She seemed agitated when I said hello, so I asked, “How’s your day going?” As she revealed details about an ongoing trial, I realized why she might have misjudged me, why she’d misinterpreted some of my actions and words. I recognized that I’d misjudged her too. The Holy Spirit nudged my heart. See? Aren’t you glad you’ve been praying for her?
When Beth finished her story, I could honestly say to her, “I’ve been praying for you, and I’ll keep praying for you.” She smiled.
Pursue Peace through Prayer
…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8,10)
Though we were opposed to him and all his ways, Jesus died for us, removed the barrier of our sin, and brought us into relationship with God. Because his reconciling love now resides within us by his Spirit, we can extend that love to others. God no longer counts our sins against us, so we no longer hold other people’s sins against them (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).
Our attitudes toward those who offend us won’t change overnight. Sometimes the adjustment takes months, years, or maybe even decades. But God will be faithful to change our perspective as we come to him in prayer. Praying for those who have hurt us is not only obedience to God’s Word, but also opportunity for him to work in our hearts and within other people. He will help us move beyond our sinful attitudes about others and toward his love for them.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he wrote,
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister….Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (Romans 14:13, 19, NIV)
Because I was honest with God, prayed his Word for Beth and myself, and waited for him to change my attitude, God healed my hurt and softened my heart toward her. He helped me avoid putting obstacles in her path and seek the attitudes and actions that led toward peace. He freed me to extend the love of Christ to her, as he first gave this same peaceable, forgiving love to me.
People are bound to hurt us. But if we take those hurts to God, he can help us pursue the path that will glorify him and edify others.
Do you need to add someone to your prayer list?
Not her real name