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.
The Catholic Church has taught from the days of St. Paul that it is the duty of state to use the death penalty. 1
The theory of “just war” is also an important part of the infallible moral teaching of the Catholic Church, especially as one forms the leaders of state. But today’s post is not about how to deal with enemies at the national level, but how to pray at the personal level. Jesus Christ said “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”—Matthew 5:44. Notice that such a command does not make that person not-your-enemy! Love your enemies presupposes that you are a real enough person to actually have real enemies. Not just imaginary pseudonyms from social media who want to kill you with the push of a button.
You see, simply the idea of having an “enemy” is jarring to the post-modern mind. We tend to put unity before truth. So, it’s strange that Jesus Himself had enemies. It’s tough for us Americans to grasp this, for we generally want to get alone with everyone. This is not bad, but it is bad to value unity above truth. God’s reality for our planet is that unity flows from truth. Anyone who lives this reality of metaphysics will have some enemies. Having enemies is actually necessary to get to heaven, for we need enemies to get there, primarily so that we can live the Beatitudes.
The above is a photo of desperate families escaping from Khorsabad, a town controlled by ISIS which was under Peshmerga fire. How is it that the tradition of the Catholic Church could have the Knights Templar killing Muslims at the siege of Malta and still believe in a Savior who said Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you? We have to look past the muddled theology of the past 50 years to see that the tradition of the Catholic Church actually has a more practical and more merciful approach to enemies than a new feelings-based theology. In fact, our answer today is going to come from an official prayer of the Traditional Latin Mass for enemies. Remember, this Mass was not created by a group of Catholics and Protestants sipping espresso in an Italian coffee shop, but it’s roots are “apostolic” by the infallible words of the Council of Trent. Certain parts were later changed or formulated under the blood of martyrs and the fastings and vigils of select saints over very slow centuries. So, almost all of prayers of the Traditional Latin Mass can be traced to time between the 1st and 7th century AD. This is why we can say that the liturgy is a look into the mind of God, even in reference to a single Oratio for an enemy.
As I wrote, there is actually a prayer for enemies in the Traditional Latin Mass, and this shows the mind of God:
One translation of the top prayer from the 1962 Missal is as follows:
O God, the Lover and Guardian of peace and charity, grant to all our enemies true peace and charity, together with remission of all their sins, and by Thy power deliver us from their wiles. Through Our Lord. Amen.
Let’s parce out this beautiful and powerful prayer to see how it is more merciful and practical than anything that could come from a manmade or fabricated liturgy.
O God, the lover and guardian of peace and charity
Notice that this is a prayer directed to God, not to the congregation. It recognizes that charity and peace are not social inventions, but that only God can give charity and peace, for God is love. When we divert from Him (even doctrinally) we don’t just divert from the Magisterium. We divert from the infinite Being who is Love-Itself.
Grant to all our enemies true peace and charity
I personally find it astonishing to see that the ancient tradition of the Catholic Church has something more merciful and practical for enemies than anything I found in the first five years of my priesthood praying the Mass of Paul VI. In other words, the intense saints of old all prayed that God would actually grant “peace and charity” to all their “enemies.” This presupposes that priests and saints have enemies. Thus, it is a prayer that takes blood, sweat and tears. The old Mass is so subtle, but perfectly crafted in every word. The liturgy is the bridge between God and man, even for issues as gritty as enemies. When that bridge is broken, we will forget how to live even the practical sides of life, including prayer for our enemies.
remission of all their sins.
Amidst all the doctrinal divisions in the Church today, we should each pray this prayer once today: “Grant to all our enemies true peace and charity, together with remission of all their sins.” (Da omnibus inimicis nostris pacem caritatemque veram: et cunctorum eis remissionem tribue peccatorum.)
This above Oratio or prayer hits all the transcendentals: Truth, beauty and goodness. It recognizes, however, that the final transcendental of oneness (or unity) can not be met by a fabricated form of man’s peace, but rather only Christ’s peace. This is a peace that has not been accepted by most of the world, as seen in the top picture of ISIS destroying more lives. We can not fake peace with the Muslims or even Catholic heretics that infiltrate the Church. But Jesus does not lose peace. In fact, He gives it in a deep but counter-cultural way: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”—John 14:27
By Thy power deliver us from their wiles.
I really, really love this part of the prayer. We pray nosque ab eorum insidiis potenter eripe which is: “Rescue us from our enemies’ insidious plans, by Your power!” This shows that the fulness of Catholicism is very practical, not amorphous or nebulous. Let’s put it all together: “God, please grant peace and love to my enemies, but keep them far from me and my loved ones!” Real people and great saints (usually one in the same like St. Paul) were not people-pleasers. They were great lovers of the person who stood before them, enough to die for their enemies. So also, we do not deny the harm done to us by our enemies, but we love them, forgive them and pray for them. 2
You see, we still (barely) live in a world more real, more material, more direct than the virtual reality of an Oculus. It will get more real when terrorist attacks increase on our soil, surely coming in 2017. Because life is real, material and direct, we need prayers that are real, material and direct. “God, please love on my enemies, but stop them from affecting my life.” Let’s pray this prayer boldly for and against 1) the enemies of tradition, 2) the enemies of unborn life and 3) the enemies of middle-Eastern Christians.
We need gritty, merciful and practical prayers like this. 2016 was a year that produced an estimated 90,000 martyrs. We have had 900,000 martyrs the past 10 years. The tradition of the Church is under siege and enemies of the pro-life movement have no intention of stopping killing babies just because Trump was elected today. I snapped this in New Orleans just a few days ago, and it perfectly illustrates love of enemies, even the enemies of innocent and tiny little children like this “death-scort.” Notice the joy of the Catholic woman behind her, as she prays her Rosary.
So, God of peace and charity, please grant peace and charity to all our enemies and even the remission of their sins. But also Lord, rescue us quickly and powerfully from their evil designs.
“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.”
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.
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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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