I want to ask all of my readers a very serious question: When was the last time you prayed for ISIS?
You know, ISIS. Also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They’re the Sunni Muslim extremist group currently wreaking havoc in the Middle East and drawing the U.S. into yet another military intervention in Iraq. They kidnapped and beheaded journalist James Foley. For the past few months, they’ve been systematically oppressing and killing Christians and other religious minorities, including children. They want to rule the Middle East.
Recently, a debate has raged over what our response should be to this terrorist group. Many, like Bill O’Reilly and Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, believe we should wipe them out – Robertson’s only caveat being that we attempt to evangelize them first. If they don’t convert to Christianity, then off with their heads.
Because, you know, that’s totally different from what the terrorists are doing. Yes, huh!
I wonder more and more these days whether those who claim Christian values actually read their Bibles. Jesus made it very plain how we are to deal with our enemies:
“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 children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” ~ Matthew 5:43-48
“But to you who are listening I say: 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
This sentiment is echoed in the apostles’ letters to the Church:
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. ~ 1 Peter 3:8-9
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear 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
“But, April!” some might say. “These are dangerous people bent on wiping out everyone who doesn’t believe like they do – even innocent children. Surely Jesus didn’t mean just pray for them!”
Well, I suppose that depends on whether you think Jesus really meant what he said in all circumstances.
I find it funny that so many Christians take as life-and-death the (apostolic) instruction for wives to submit to husbands, or the Levitical declaration that homosexuality is an “abomination,” but will question the unequivocal commands of our King and Savior Jesus Christ that require some sacrifice of self. And before anyone tries to claim that Jesus was simply referring to theological detractors or office gossips when he spoke of “enemies,” let me remind them that Jesus prayed for his enemies even as they were torturing him to death:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” ~ Luke 23:24
That’s about as inconvenient as it gets.
The reason we balk at Christ’s command is that we really don’t trust God’s wisdom in these matters. We say we trust Him – but as soon as circumstances start looking really dire, we rush to take control. We call our congressional representatives, dust off our guns, and start convincing ourselves that our swift, physical, self-reliant action would bring glory to the God we claim to serve.
The truth is, we don’t view prayer as an effective means to combat violence and evil – though the Bible reiterates time and again that the fervent prayer of the righteous “availeth much” (James 5:16) and is the weapon powerful enough to demolish strongholds (2 Cor. 10:4). We spend a lot of time in Christendom screaming about how the Bible is the literal, authoritative Word of God, but act as if it’s optional as soon as our lives, safety, or sense of dignity are threatened.
Sure, we could send 300,000 troops into Iraq. We could root out ISIS and execute them for their horrific oppression and slaughter of innocent people. And let’s say that it actually worked this time: that the worst of the extremists were permanently wiped out and the region returned to peace – that some other more extreme Al Qaeda group didn’t rise up to start the cycle over. Sure, some lives would be saved. But who would get the credit (both good and bad)? Us. What would be accomplished for God’s Kingdom? Zilch.
Imagine, instead, if we prayed for ISIS. Imagine if God actually changed their hearts. What if one of them became the minister of the gospel that convinced hundreds of thousands to follow Christ? The Apostle Paul was similarly a persecutor of Christians. After his conversion, he wrote half the New Testament.
God said, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). The first requirement in that scenario is “humble.” That means admitting that God’s wisdom is superior. That when He said “pray for enemies,” He meant it. That by commanding us to pray, He’s asking us to do something that has real power to bring about incredible change. Then we do it. Then the change comes.
Let’s do it. Let’s humble ourselves, trust God, and pray for our enemies. Pray that God would frustrate ISIS’s plans and change their hearts. I’ve already seen what happens when Christians fight evil with the world’s weapons. I’m ready to see what God can accomplish.