“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.”
By Kim Butts
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a).
“But I tell you who hear Me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
Choosing to love and pray for those who persecute or mistreat us mystifies unbelievers, and yet this is the lifestyle to which we are called by God. We are to love all people regardless of how they treat us. Although some may set themselves up as enemies against us, they are people in need of a saving relationship with Jesus and an understanding of His Lordship in their lives. The Word of God instructs us to love them, praying that they might enter into His kingdom! Before reading any further, bring someone to mind whom you would consider to be your enemy. Read, study, apply and pray the truths from God’s Word that your enemies might be drawn to Jesus’ kingdom.
Here is a free PDF of all the Scriptures in this article. They can help you stay on track in your prayers for your enemies.
Knowing Your True Enemy
Scripture states that our chief enemy is Satan. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Therefore, we should recognize that behind our flesh and blood enemies ultimately Satan is at work.
The Apostle Paul probably understood this concept more fully than any of the disciples or other believers. At one time, he persecuted the followers of Jesus, even casting his vote to have many put to death while he watched in approval. A case could certainly be made that Paul considered all believers to be his enemies and vice versa. But when God got Paul’s attention on the road to Damascus, which ultimately led to his salvation through Jesus, he grasped for the first time, the mercy of the Lord. He understood that the followers of Jesus were not his enemies, as God gave him tremendous insight about his real enemy–Satan.
Paul went from being an enemy of God to a child of God through a personal encounter with Jesus. He described the difference, from personal experience, to the Philippian church: “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:18-20a).
It is also important to remember that, like Paul, each of us was at one time an enemy of God: “Since we now have been justified by His blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through Him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son, how much more, having been reconciled shall we be saved through His life? Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:9-11). Because we have experienced the mercy of God, should we not also extend it to others?
- Examine your heart to be sure that you are not allowing the devil to have a foothold in your life where you have acted against others in a manner unworthy of Christ. With repentance and godly sorrow, ask for His forgiveness and seek the forgiveness of those you may have damaged by your words or actions. We are either serving the cause of Christ, or doing the work of the enemy of our souls.
- Perhaps there are people who have hurt or persecuted you or your family in some way. If so, God calls you to forgive them. Pray that the Father will help you to see these enemies through His eyes. Ask Him to give you a forgiving heart. It may mean that you will need to go to someone to extend forgiveness so that your relationship may be healed and restored.
Jesus Prayed for His Enemies
Jesus had enemies . . . and they crucified Him. Yet, as we know, He had the ultimate victory in the end. But because God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to die, His Son did not leave the earth without praying for those who were responsible for His death. Jesus, who told us to love and pray for our enemies, demonstrated the ultimate gift of love while hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34a). Jesus prayed for His enemies . . . how can we do less?
One of the most amazing commands of Christ is to love our enemies. In our flesh, we naturally want to retaliate or fight back when we are treated unkindly or persecuted. Jesus preached forgiveness and mercy: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). His lifestyle demonstrated grace, that ours might also. He took His command one step further, adding another level of difficulty: “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44b).
May this article give you a firm foundation upon which to train your children to love their enemies so that they might be determined to pray for them to know Jesus as Savior and Lord. Jude also spoke about the importance of mercy: “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them” (Jude 1:22). Because of God’s mercy, we were saved. We must extend His mercy to those who are still enemies of God, so that they might also receive what we have been given.
Overcome Evil with Good
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is Mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21). How will the unsaved most likely come into God’s kingdom–through your revenge, or by your loving acts and your prayer for them? This is an extremely important concept to teach children, as their first response is often to hit back, think up revenge, cease friendship, etc., rather than praying, continuing to be kind, etc.
Sometimes I say unkind things to my husband that I would normally not say to him. Precious man that he is, he always responds kindly to me and is never harsh. He doesn’t try to get back at me or say something hurtful in response. What does this do in me? It drives me to God in repentance and then to my husband to apologize! How many arguments or hurtful situations in our families could be avoided by simply responding kindly instead of fighting back–submitting to God instead of to our natural human sinful flesh! It really works! I feel terrible for hurting my husband’s feelings or lashing out at him because he is kind! If he responded back to me in anger, I doubt I would feel very repentant. But because he responds in love, it brings me back into right relationship with him, and with God.
How to Pray for Your Enemies
Our Lord is the “God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Romans 4:17b). Sometimes it is hard to imagine that our enemies could ever turn away from evil and come to Christ, but He has called us to pray for them. What seems impossible to us is possible with God (Mark 10:27). What greater love could there be than to pray for God to draw them into His kingdom? Remember the people you and each family member considered as enemies? Here are some passages from Colossians that you can pray on their behalf:
- Pray that God will rescue them from the dominion of darkness and bring them “into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).
- Pray God will make known to them His glorious riches through the mystery of Christ (Colossians 1:27). Pray that they may “know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).
- Pray that they will “put to death whatever belongs to earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
- Pray that they will rid themselves of “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from lips” (Colossians 3:8).
- Pray that they will become one of God’s children, holy and dearly loved, clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).
- Pray they will come to know and possess the love of the Lord (Colossians 3:14).
- Pray that they will come to know the peace of Christ and that it will rule in their hearts (Colossians 3:15).
–Kim Butts is the co-founder of Harvest Prayer Ministries.
Here is a free PDF of all the Scriptures in this article. They can help you stay on track in your prayers for your enemies.
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.
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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Saturdays are my field days. I field strip my computers (scan, defrag, update etc.), police the Cupboard Under The Stairs, do laundry, try to fill up a garbage bag or two (that’s satisfaction), police both the fridge (especially on a wake-up) and my conscience. Well, that last one I do everyday. Which it ain’t easy in these days of political electioneering and ecclesiastical goat rodeos on nearly every front.
This morning a couple friends with whom I have an instant message group going – often hilarious – mentioned the “maledictory psalms”, also known as the “cursing psalms” and “imprecatory psalms”. They call for judgment and disaster to fall upon the enemies of God and God’s people.
Since I’ve been using the Bux Protocol™ a lot these days, the reference to the maledictory psalms got me thinking about posting on this difficult topic: how to pray for enemies.
Christ the Lord commanded us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). And yet a couple dozen or so psalms – which all Christians can use for prayer – seem to wish some pretty dire things on our enemies. And, yes, we have enemies.
Love for “enemy” can be expressed different ways. Love for our enemies does not mean that we must hope that they prosper or succeed in their wicked ways. Love, charity, means that we will their true good. We pray for their salvation. We ask God to use the necessary corrections, chastisements, whatever, to punch through their pride and turn their minds and hearts, even if that means suffering unto loss of limb and life.
A standard list of the maledictory psalms will include – and alert that Psalms are numbered differently in various editions of Scripture and in newer and older books you might consult – 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, and 143. Many of these psalms were “edited” or even wholly excluded from the revised psalter used in the Liturgy of the Hours. However, there are lot’s of maledictions, curses and imprecations throughout the Psalter: 5:10; 6:10; 7:9-16; 10:15; 17:13; 18:40-42; 18:47; 26:4-5; 28:4; 31:17, 18; 35:3-8; 40:14; 54:5; 55:9, 19; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:ll-15; 68:2; 69 (most of the psalm); 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:6, 12; 83:9-17; 104:35; 109:6-20; 129:5; 137:7-9; 140:8-11; 141: 10; 143:12; 149:6-9. Of special note are Ps 55, 108, and 136 which give libs a serious case of the collywobbles (except perhaps if they use it against defenders of doctrine and law).
So, what to make of these psalms? First, since they are the inspired word of Almighty God, we can safely say that they are not bad and they can be used for prayer. St. Augustine believed that every word of the Psalms was Christ speaking to the Father, but in different voices, as the Head, the Body and both together, Christus Totus. I’ll go with Augustine.
That said, it might make the Christian scratch her head when we pray “Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock” (Ps 137:9).
How to use these psalms in prayer in a way that is pleasing to God and that does not imperil our own salvation by spurring us to soul killing hatred? Isn’t this a serious consideration in these times of aforementioned political circuses and ecclesial misadventure?
One of the best explanations of the maledictory psalms – and therefore how to pray for our enemies – I’ve run across came in a comment made on this very blog under another entry I wrote about the maledictory psalms (thanks Henry Edwards!). Namely, …
In the Introduction (by Pius Parsch) to the Baronius edition of the 1962 Roman Breviary , we read that
As Christians we may never wish evil upon a sinner directly and personally, but these psalms have nothing to do with personal enmities. The theme of all our praying is God’s kingdom and sin, and the curse passages in the psalms are expressions of absolute protest against evil, sin and hell. Try changing the curses into an expression of divine justice and you pronounce them no longer with your own mouth, but with the mouth of Christ and the Church. The curse thus resembles the woes that our Lord addressed against the Pharisees. There is something quite stirring and grand about these curses. The all-just God steps before us as we pray and warns us of the punishments of hell.
In regard to Psalm 108 (109)—perhaps the most maledictory of all the so-called curse psalms and omitted entirely from the LOH psalter—he says that
Psalm 108 is a curse formula and very difficult to reconcile with the Christian idea of prayer. Let us suppose that the Church or Christ Himself is praying this psalm. Then the curses become no longer wishes, but rather the solemn sentence of divine justice upon unwillingness to repent. With tears in her eyes the Church prays these terrible words–just as Jesus once declaimed his eightfold “Woe is you . . .” against the Pharisees. At the opening of the psalm, the Church laments. In the following two sections, where curses and punishments are asked for, a picture of the everlasting hell is painted for us. The petition which comprises the fourth part of the psalm can be a prayer of the individual soul; I stand terrified before the picture I have seen: “Have mercy on me, a poor weak mortal!”.
While there is a great deal more to be said about the maledictory psalms, that seems a good place to pause so that I can do my job and admonish you.
We members of the Church Militant have enemies. There are the relentless, ineluctable foes which are the world, the flesh and the Devil. There are also the agents of the Devil among us, outside the Church and, verily, inside.
We must strive not to hate enemies, to love enemies with the love that is charity, the love that desires what is truly good for them. If they are doing great harm to our persons, families, nation and Church, yes, we can pray for their conversion or for their ruin lest they continue to do harm and lest they go to Hell. For example, HERE. And while we pray for and against our enemies (and bear wrongs patiently), we must see to it that we don’t go to Hell, either.
As we soldier on through this vale of tears, we must constantly field strip our consciences while asking God for all the graces we need to do His will and to conform ourselves to His will and ways.
And now, from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy 3:11-17:
Persecutions, afflictions: such as came upon me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra: what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord delivered me. And all that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall grow worse and worse: erring, and driving into error. But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And because from thy infancy thou hast known the holy scriptures, which can instruct thee to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.
Finally, since I am trying to fulfill my mission to keep as many of you out of Hell as I can…
GO TO CONFESSION!