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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

August 21, 2001

Praying for Enemies

Jesus commanded us to love, bless, do good and pray for those who wrong us. He practiced this in his own life (Luke 23:34), he included it in the prayer he taught his disciples (Luke 11:2-4), and he emphasized forgiveness and love in teachings throughout his ministry (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:32-45; 17:3-4).

In the Sermon on the Mount, he said the following:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father 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 have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?

Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. Matthew 5:44-47 (NKJV)

*****

There are people in our lives who have wronged us. While we'd like them to realize what they've done, then repent and apologize, often that does not happen.

In the midst of our pain, it is hard to look at Jesus' words above, let alone put them into practice. Yet I have come to understand that his command here is exactly for times such as these, and that when it is put into practice, God's great power is unleashed in an astonishing way.

Let me explain.

In the past three years things have occurred in my life that have driven me again and again to this command. As I have tried to love and pray for my enemies, I have been repeatedly surprised by three things:

  • I have found it to be the hardest, most painful and ongoing spiritual work I’ve ever encountered.
  • It has caused me to rely on God more completely than ever before, and to value the witness of the Holy Spirit groaning within me in prayer. (Romans 8:26-27)
  • I have been humbled by a growing awareness that persevering in praying for my enemies has had greater consequences for the Kingdom than anything else about my walk with Jesus.

*****

When I began trying to pray for my enemies, I didn’t realize I was going to be confronting my own weaknesses and sins. But I soon found knowing and agreeing with the command is a lot easier than trying to practice it.

I wasn’t sure where to start. Not only did the words not come, but the attitude I needed to even want to pray wasn’t there.

I had to accept the fact that my enemies really did do some terrible things. Since I had counted some of these people as friends, I found myself constantly trying to rationalize or explain their behavior, and sometimes to find a way to blame myself for it. Breaking away from this kind of thinking was hard and took time. But I found it was only after I faced the facts that I could move on to actually pray for them and eventually forgive them

When I did pray, I found myself wrestling with truths about myself that I would rather have kept hidden. They were things that God wanted to expose.

For example, sometimes while I was praying for someone, I found myself praying at them instead, as my pastor friend used to say.

I caught myself wanting God to smite them, or to force them to repent and apologize to me, even though I knew full well that God never forces his will on anyone.

I found myself dressing up these inclinations by modifying them slightly. I would pray that my enemy would repent "so they may walk more closely with you, Lord." Or, "so that they may be fruitful again." Another sidestep was to add a quick, "if that's your will, God."

But inside — and God can always see inside – I was really saying, "and that better be your will, God, because I've been wronged. Can't you see what they've done to me?"

At first I was surprised by how this persisted in my prayers, even after I became aware of it. I realized it was a hard thing for me to turn off. After still more time went by, I realized it was an impossible thing for me to turn off.

*****

I learned two important lessons.

1. It is impossible to pray for your enemies under your own power. As I struggled to pray for my enemies I found myself more and more dependent on the work of the Spirit within me. He had to take over.

Many days I sat in prayer and all I could say was, "God, I don’t know how to pray for ________. They have hurt me so deeply that all I can see is my own situation. But I want so badly to obey your command. I trust that your Spirit can pray what I cannot."

Sometimes, I could sense the Spirit enabling me to pray, communing with me and breaking through my focus on myself. But I had setbacks. I fell back into self pity and found I had to climb out of the pit of despair again and again.

Yet each time I did, I found my faith had grown a bit more. I learned not to be ashamed of my helplessness, but to instead realize my utter dependence on God. I learned the truth of what Larry Crabb wrote in his book Connections, that we will need to keep fighting and killing the sin in our lives again and again, for as long as we live, until we are home.

2. Jesus’ command to pray for enemies is for our benefit as much as theirs.

Because of my own recent experiences, I am convinced Jesus was looking out for the spiritual health of his followers when he gave this command. Jesus knew we would make enemies, just by virtue of being his disciples (Matthew 10; John 15:17-25). He also knew we would need to have a way to deal with the emotions and hurt this would bring.

I have found that as I struggle to put praying for my enemies into practice, I grow in faith in ways I wouldn't have otherwise.

Praying for enemies helps me to look at my own actions and repent of them. It takes the focus off what has been done to me and puts it on God's will. I gain perspective. Maybe most important of all, I realize that God is allowing me to be an instrument of his grace.

In my struggles, I found myself thinking about the God I serve, who can hate sin so much and yet have a heart full of love and forgiveness. At those times I've cried out, "I am trying to imitate you, Lord! How is this possible?"

The answer, of course, is in Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. God's justice and love are both satisfied there.

I have known for a long time that all sin is ultimately sin against God (Psalm 51). But I always looked at it from the standpoint of me being the sinner: all my sin is ultimately sin against God, and Jesus paid the price on the cross for me.

It wasn't until I began praying for my enemies that I began to think about how the cross also is there for those who have committed sins that hurt me. Jesus also died for them.

In his book, The Gift of Forgiveness, Charles Stanley suggests that one way to move towards forgiveness is to picture yourself with the person who has wronged you at the foot of the cross. Looking up at Jesus, you understand that just as God has forgiven you of your sins, he can forgive the sins committed against you.

*****

Sin always somehow ends up at the cross. What peace this truth brings.

In the moments when I’m most consciously aware of these truths, I realize I have never felt closer to the divine nature. Sometimes I even get a fleeting glimpse into what God’s unconditional "agape" love really feels like — the kind of love that can keep loving no matter how it’s been despised, used, hurt or wounded. It makes me fall to my knees.

Amazing grace, indeed.

*****

Praying for enemies is not easy, or, at least in my case, quick work. I often wonder what Joseph went through in coming to terms with his brothers during all those years in prison. Did he get forgiveness right on his first try, or did he go through a process of growing in his relationship with God until he could truly forgive?

I think of Stephen praying for God to forgive his enemies as he was stoned. I think of Paul and Silas bringing their jailer to Christ. I think of the Christian martyrs through the ages, and in our own time.

They all knew what it was to pray for their enemies. And I think they knew that praying for enemies has far-reaching consequences.

When you pray for your enemies, you are going against what the world would have you do. You are not wreaking vengeance. You are not getting even. You are not repaying in kind. You are siding with the way God sees things and with how he does things.

As Christians pray for those who have wronged them, God's power is unleashed. Some enemies who don't know Jesus come to him. Others repent and reconcile. Wounds are healed and the Kingdom is enlarged in ways that would not have happened otherwise.

*****

Praying for enemies is not a natural act. It is a supernatural act. That is why we cannot do it on our own.

As I continue to pray for my enemies, I am coming to understand that God is using me in his plan of salvation. As best I can, and with what I know right now, I am trusting the God who causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall down on the righteous and the unrighteous. I am trusting him to also be the God who works all things for good for those who love him.

He is able.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
– Isaiah 55:8-9

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"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father 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 have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?

Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
— Matthew 5:44-47 (NKJV)