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 you
for 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 jobs and then their lives? 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
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.
April Yamasaki is lead pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Abbotsford, B.C., and the author of Sacred Pauses (Herald Press, 2013). She blogs at aprilyamasaki.com, where this post originally appeared.