Do we really pray for our enemies?

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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.

12 responses to “Do we really pray for our enemies?

  1. Dear April, thank you for a very timely reminder! My group (prayer warriors for the love of heaven-why is everything a fight??!!) has been circulating some terrible stories about children being beheaded in front of their parents; is that worse than having them hit by bombs or shrapnel? How? And our bombs and boots aren’t really solving anything, are they? Of course, can you imagine what would happen if our poor beleaguered Prez (leader of this “Christian nation” doncha know) suggested such a thing? I shudder to think of it! And after all, prayers don’t put any money in the pockets of the military-industrial complex corporations, do they?

    Anyway, I’m joining you. Right this minute, and sending this to a friend as well. And maybe to a couple of priests I trust. Maybe we can raise your voice crying in the wilderness to a chorus. Thank you again, for REMINDING me! What a gift you have; what a gift you ARE!

  2. Our faith is being tested every day. We are up against a powerful adversary. God is greater and is in control of every situation. I wonder if we would we be willing to pray for the devil and all his minions too.

  3. “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!”

    I think you are missing a crucial point. Sure pray for them, why not, but then defend the innocents from them. Prayer may work but actual defense always works.

  4. I know this is a little after the fact. I’ve been reading through some of your older posts because I’ve been following your posts on biblical counseling which I’m finding very interesting and informative.

    At my household (and in our parish) for the past several months we’ve been praying for the persecuted church, and for members of ISIS, using the following prayer:

    “O LORD God, whose Son Jesus Christ suffered and died for us and in His resurrection restores life and peace to all creation; O Lord God, our Redeemer, Defender, Protector, and Avenger, we pray for Your people who are victims of violence and hatred and are oppressed and injured by their fellow humans. Give strength and encouragement to them by Your Holy Spirit. Look upon them and help us to honor in our hearts those who have died and are suffering in Your service. Comfort their families and give them courage. Thwart the oppressors and call them to repentance, but if they will not repent, we commit them to Your justice. All this we pray through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

    This is almost personal to us because our rector was in Erbil around Thanksgiving visiting his daughter and her family who have been serving Kurds in Iraq (Muslims and Christians alike) for several years now, and who had to leave their home when ISIS advanced and who are just overwhelmed now with caring for survivors and dealing with the suffering of their close friends and neighbors. The stories we know about what’s going on there come from the mouths of people who saw it first-hand or heard about it from people who experienced it first-hand.

    Our hope is in God, not in American military might. And we do pray for ISIS to repent. And if they will not, God, who is the just judge of all the earth, will do what’s right.

    I just want to comment, though, that when you talk in your post about Christ’s instructions to pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek, repay evil for good, etc., I think it’s important to make a distinction between our actions when we are directly persecuted ourselves vs our actions when we see others being persecuted. No Christians in America are being targeted by ISIS. If I were a prisoner of ISIS, Christ’s words would apply directly to me. But I think it may be off-target, if some believers halfway across the world are being brutally oppressed and are calling out for help, to say to them, “Well, I could do something to help defend you, but I know God wants you to just turn the other cheek, so I’m going to limit my involvement in your crisis to just praying for your oppressors.” Maybe you can clarify.

    • Tim, this is an excellent question. I’m glad you asked.

      I’m a firm believer in promoting justice for the oppressed. It is something the Bible commands Christians to do over and over. If there is a way we in America can aid in bringing ISIS to justice for their crimes against humanity, then we absolutely should.

      However, most of the comments I hear regarding ISIS are steeped in fear and vengeance, not justice. Anyone saying we should fly over there and behead anyone who doesn’t convert to our faith is looking to repay evil for evil. Bringing evil men to justice requires following moral, civil and international law. If the Iraqi government wants our tanks and planes over there to help rout ISIS, then so be it. But we can’t just barge in on another country’s sovereign territory, engage in operations that also endanger law-abiding citizens, and call that justice. It’s just not so. There are many places in the world (Syria comes to mind) where horrific atrocities are occurring daily, yet the U.S. is content to sit on its hands because “that doesn’t affect us.”

      No matter how horribly ISIS has behaved, anyone captured alive should be brought to trial in an Iraqi or international court of law and be sentenced by a judge. That is what justice requires in our society. Anything else is vengeance driven by hate and fear, and the right to execute vengeance resides only with God Himself.

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply. I agree with what you’re saying, both from a standpoint of Christian morality (seeking justice for the oppressed vs revenge) and also from the standpoint of prudent foreign and national security policy, and I appreciate the way you stated it.

        I think most people in our country outside the military sector don’t really get the legal limitations on military action or the ways in which it is really limited in its capability to bring about a desired result, and it’s easy to think, “Christians are being harmed; we have the most powerful military in the world, why don’t we just swoop in there and do something.” And the reality is that much of the time something like that is just absolutely impossible and wouldn’t help. I tend to see the motivation behind such comments as really rooted in a desire for justice for the oppressed rather than fear and vengeance. It just comes out of a lot of ignorance and suffers from the language it’s framed in. I think it’s helpful to respond to that with the kind of statements in your post regarding prayer for our “enemies” and desire for their repentance, but also with the kinds of comments in your reply to my comment regarding our responsibility to work for justice for the oppressed through the channels of, for example, international legal institutions ordained by God.