In theory, Christians should make the best of companions, colleagues, neighbours, and even adversaries. We are, after all, summoned by God to pray for those all around us, with whom we share life, friendship, and work. More than this however, we are commanded to love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5.38-48). For our opponents and detractors. For those who work against us, or to undermine us. Those who would harm us. Those who have hurt us.
This is one of the most arresting, even jolting, teachings of Jesus. Some people even find it offensive.
It’s immensely counter-instinctual. It recoils against the impulses of human pride. It subdues our Darwinian drive to survive and triumph at any cost.
To be sure, the command to pray for our enemies is a rather tough teaching from Jesus. On one level, of course, it has an appeal. It holds forth the promise of peace over violence. It is a recipe for breaking down cycles of retaliation, looking to reconciliation instead of strife. But anyone who’s ever put it into practice knows that implementation is no walk in the park.
I want to momentarily reflect on what it means to love and pray for our enemies. I want to do this in a way which will take Jesus’ imperative out of the stratosphere of “high moral teaching” and uncomfortably into the details of our lives. How does it hit the ground if we don’t have an arch nemesis? Or if we’re not from a social context marked by long-standing, inherited animosities towards another people group?
Pastorally, I continue to find that Christians frequently fail to fully recognize the people included among “our enemies.” This has included yours truly. The result: we don’t pray properly.
What explains this state of affairs? And how do we recognize the “enemies” that deserve our prayers? Let me offer three tips. This is my attempt to provide a fuller answer to this question: how do we recognize, according to Jesus, those enemies for whom we should pray?
First, in considering Jesus’ teaching, it is quite common to interpret enemies in an impersonal manner. Enemies are envisioned as being antagonistic forces or groups. For the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’ time, the Romans—who were occupying their homeland—were mortal enemies (I don’t know if the Jews prayed for the Romans; I suspect most didn’t). In these sense, enemies are the “bad guys” out there. We know them, but not necessarily personally. Alas, according to Jesus’, if we think of enemies only in an impersonal sense, we’re mistaken. When he speaks of enemies, he refers also to those with whom we experience personal enmity.
Second, we sometimes falsely assume that an enemy is someone with whom we must have visible, external conflict. There must be palpable strife and antagonism. Not so fast! An enemy can also be someone for whom we feel hostility or ill-will. Someone who has caused us an interior emotional affront, regardless of whether a public spat or show-down resulted. As you can see, this clarification paves the way for a widened recognition of available candidates for our enemy prayer list!
We must pray when it’s hard and costly and it recoils against instinct. We must pray for the change of heart to swallow our pride and break with worldly customs that tell us ‘an eye for an eye’.
Thirdly—this is very important!—enemies can sometimes be among those whom we otherwise (or normally) love. They are not always distant; they can be intimate! At moments, even our closest relations and relationships can temporarily assume enemy status. Some of King David’s psalms (e.g., 55, 59) give voice to this phenomenon, when he speaks of enemies in his home, among his peers, family, and even close friends. Like David, we can sometimes experience deep estrangement and enmity from those whom we normally trust, enjoy, and cherish.
As you can tell, the connotation of Jesus’ command to pray for and love our enemies can be much wider than we sometimes think. And this means that our invitation to pray for our enemies is going to be more urgent and regular than we may typically imagine. To suggest otherwise is to shrink and weaken the potency of Jesus’ point!
In describing the condition of humanity apart from God’s loving intervention, the Bible is clear that there is a pronounced, pressing need for reconciliation. This need is far and wide. It’s in us! While tangible strife and conflict are not always and everywhere present, the seeds for it are. In our hearts. In many of our relationships. We are all going to be slighted, demeaned, offended, misunderstood, belittled, hurt, betrayed, overlooked, and under-appreciated. We will do all of this to others.
Jesus knows this; he isn’t naive. And the response he counsels is remarkable. It tells us that the first step towards dealing with unpleasant reality of having and being enemies is to acknowledge it. Come to terms with is. Don’t keep it distant or out there. Recognize it in your life. See that the issue of enemies is personal issue. Sometimes with those near and dear to us. Then, once you do this, pray. For the desire to show concrete love. To give tangible gestures of good-will, when your inner attitude screams to do the opposite! We must pray when it’s hard and costly and it recoils against instinct. We must pray for the change of heart to swallow our pride and break with worldly customs that tell us ‘an eye for an eye’.
It’s difficult to imagine what would happen to the world if we all started doing this. The vision is so glorious, we can scarcely fathom it. Sometimes loving our enemies makes them friends. Not just the act of praying but what God does through it. And what our obedience to Jesus’ teaching affects inside us! Sometimes praying for those who stand against you—or offend and hurt you—invites God to do marvellous things. New beginnings.
This is a more excellent way. It’s the way that a Christian truly demonstrates that they are a child of God.
Like Christ, Christians are to love and forgive their enemies. We are to be quick to show mercy. We are to be eager to pursue reconciliation and peace. We are to be humble to give and receive forgiveness in the particular details and relationships of our lives!
Christians don’t do this because it’s a noble moral principle or a lofty ideal. Sorry, but this isn’t enough to empower and sustain Jesus’ call to enemy-love and prayer. Rather, the Christian follows Jesus’ teaching because Jesus—God himself!—has done it towards us. In Christ, God loves us—one who were once His enemies (Romans 5.10)—so that we might come near to our Father. This is what makes enemy love possible. When this reality gets into our bones, we can start changing the world by praying for our enemies. We can break out of the cycles of retribution and reciprocated hostility that continue to suffocate our world.
At this point, I stop writing…because I need to go and do some praying for my enemies.