Readers of Reformed Worship are good folk: we know we’re supposed to do what Jesus says. So when Jesus says, “Love your neighbors,” we try, for starters, to speak an encouraging word to our co-worker and to help the elderly woman next door with her lawn. When Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” we try to talk about Jesus when people wonder about the hope in us and we support Internet and TV programs that share the gospel. And when Jesus says, “Cut off your right hand,” we recognize that as a different hermeneutical kettle of fish but still try follow Jesus’ words. We keep glances from turning into stares when noticing an attractive person, and we steer clear of the Internet when we’re alone if that causes us problems. No matter what Jesus tells disciples to do, we followers of his try to do it.
I’ve been preaching through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5–7. In the opening chapters Jesus tells his disciples to do a lot of very difficult things, some of which may be exaggerations. But Christians on the whole believe that it’s right to do what Jesus said, so, in some way or another, we try to follow his commands.
But I’m afraid I may have found an exception—a command that we almost always avoid carrying out. It’s in the last paragraph of Matthew 5. There, in verses 43-48, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and even pray for them. No doubt about it, that’s one of Jesus’ toughest asks.
Who Are Your Enemies?
We all have enemies, though we may not use the word. But who are they?
Few of us spend time on a battlefield. It’s not like we’re persecuted the way some Christians in this world are hounded and silenced by tormentors. But I suggest we all have enemies—people in our lives we simply cannot get along with.
Maybe it’s a bully, the person working in the next cubicle, a spouse, the guy on the crowded bus who takes two seats every morning—one for him and one for his backpack. It could be a type of person: religious liberals, religious conservatives, political liberals, political conservatives, Muslims, black people, white people, gay people. Types of people whose way of thinking, whose way of seeing the world, whose way of seeing God, pushes us beyond our comfort zone.
Indeed, New Testament scholar Frederick Dale Bruner is insightful in saying that a theology can move its advocates to hate those who don’t share it. In spiritual matters we tend to feel that the greatest issues are at stake. And often they are. So here, we think, no ground can be yielded, and here charity stops.
My mentor pastor once said to me that we shouldn’t be slow to put people in the category of “enemies.” He did not mean to be negative or to encourage people to judge others. Rather, it came out of the insight that if people really get under our skin, we can put them in that category, and then . . . well, then, they’re in the category that Jesus talks about in Matthew 5 and we need to love them and pray for them.
Just Do It
As I prepared to preach on Jesus’ words, I considered how I could preach the importance of this command and at the same time be sensitive to worshipers’ hurts and hates. But as Sunday drew near, I increasingly felt that the most fitting thing I could do would be to do what Jesus did: invite people to pray for their enemies. To actually do it.
So I went looking for prayers. And found very few. Jesus straightforwardly asks us to pray for our enemies. But, remarkably, I could find very few prayers for enemies. There are many prayers on this topic, but most of the prayers I found were aimed at the pray-ers—that the pray-ers would love their enemies, that the pray-ers would have their hearts changed, that the pray-ers would—ironically—pray for their enemies. There was a lot of “Lord, help us to do these things,” and very little “Lord, we pray for our enemies.”
I was surprised. Jesus tells us to pray “Our Father . . .” and we pray it. But Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies and, well, maybe we do and maybe we don’t. If the church has ever consistently done this, there doesn’t appear to be much record of it. In my hunt for enemy-prayers, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches were among the few that actually offered prayers for enemies.
So how might we pray for our enemies? Not about them. Not against them. But for them?
We begin by being impressed by why we should pray for our enemies. The most basic why is that we do it to imitate God, who loves his enemies. Romans 5 says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . [W]hile we were God’s enemies. . .” (vv. 8, 10). If God didn’t love enemies, you and I would not be disciples of Jesus. As God gives sun and rain to enemies (Matt. 5:45)—as God treats enemies pretty well, actually—so we must imitate God and love and pray for our enemies.
And when we consider praying for enemies, we have to consider what, biblically speaking, love means. In Scripture, love is more than an attitude or a feeling. It means wishing people well and then praying and acting in a way that makes those wishes come true.
Fortunately, one of the easiest good things to do for enemies is pray for them. Indeed, maybe the only way we can love our enemies is to pray for them. Sometimes we can’t be with them, or even get near them. They may be far away, or it may be unsafe to be around them.
Here is how Bruner suggested we can pray for our enemies:
- Pray for a new angle on them.
- Pray for new power to think better of them.
- Pray to act better toward them.
- Pray for grace, in them, and in us, to come to conversion and a right mind.
We pray for our enemies to become the sort of people God wants them to be, just as we should be praying for ourselves, and—who knows?—just as someone may actually be praying for us. (Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking we are always in the “non-enemy” category.)
Praying for our enemies makes it harder to hate them, and it makes it easier to do what Jesus said: to love them.
A Prayer for Enemies
Here is the prayer our congregation offered that Sunday morning after we listened to Matthew 5:43-48. We followed this prayer by reading in unison Romans 12:9-21 (LUYH 310) and singing “Help Us Accept Each Other” (LUYH 318:1, 2, 3).
Lord God, sovereign God of the universe, Savior and Deliverer, we do pray that you would help us by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit to take our refuge in you and not in our own strength or plans.
We pray that you would help us to resist the temptation to usurp your role, and to allow you to deal with each person, even those who do evil to us, according to your knowledge and your designs.
We earnestly pray for all who would do us harm. Help us to understand in what ways we may be provoking the hatred of our enemies; help us to understand the frustration or desperation that may lead some to strike out against others; help us to love and not to hate; help us to want to pray for our enemies, for their salvation.
We know that you do not wish for any to perish. We ask that your mighty presence be with those who embrace terrorism and persecution, and with their leaders. Lord, we do not ask that you would assist them in their aggressive actions, but that you would open their eyes to you, and that you would soften their hearts until they repent and embrace the Lord Jesus Christ. May it be in our lifetime that we could call these people friends in Christ.
Almighty Father, we are praying for our enemies!
Almighty Father, lift up our enemies.
Almighty Father, be as a honeycomb to our enemies.
Almighty Father, be to our enemies as the moon to young lovers in the June of life.
Almighty Father, be to our enemies as the voice of angels laughing in the heavens.
Almighty Father, be to our enemies as the smiling face of God.
Almighty Father, be to our enemies as the Song of Israel after deliverance.
Almighty Father, be to our enemies as the breath of the Holy One.
Almighty Father, be to our enemies as the day is to the soul of the fearful child.
Almighty Father, be to our enemies as the light is in the night of despair.
Almighty Father, be to our enemies as the love of a Christian for the Church of God.
In the name of Jesus, your Son, we pray. Amen.