Praying for your Enemies

Praying for your Enemies

Rev. John Shuck of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, TN, would like people to stop praying for him.

That should be a provocative enough opening line! What’s more, I think a few of those people at least should do just that. More importantly, they should quit talking about praying for him.

I’m guessing that they start from something like this:

But I say to you, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” — Matthew 5:44

OK, so what am I, a Bible teacher, doing telling people not to do something Jesus commanded them to do. I obviously must not be a REAL CHRISTIANTM.* Well, not so fast. Let’s take this just a little bit further before we consider it settled.

What exactly is going on when one promises–in a blog comment–to pray for a particular pastor? Hmmm. I don’t know. It probably depends on the context. In this case, that context is Rev. John Shuck and his Shuck and Jive blog. There are plenty of things on that blog to annoy a REAL CHRISTIANTM.* There are plenty of things on that blog to annoy me, and I’m pretty sure I don’t qualify for that trademark under many people’s definition. In fact, that’s why I subscribed to its RSS feed–I felt the need of being annoyed in particular ways.

I am a fan of what I call the “ministry of annoyance.” I even preach a sermon on it once, calling it the “ministry of complaining.” We tend to get angry with the people who complain and grumble, and sometimes we do so justly. Those who complain in the wrong place and at the wrong time, and are also unwilling to be part of the solution are counterproductive. But there are others who hold our feet to the fire by pointing out problems, or who are far enough out of the mainstream of our church communities that they are constantly questioning programs or activities, yet at the same time are available with constructive comments and personal availability. We often get angry at both groups together, but we need the second group. We need them to carry on a ministry of annoyance.

Let me illustrate the ministry of annoyance. At a large city church in our area, where I know a few folks on staff, there was a board meeting about buying a substantial new building for the church’s use in ministry. During the board meeting, one member raised his hand, interrupted the process and asked, “Are we going to use part of this new building to help the homeless and hungry here in downtown Pensacola? If not, I will be opposed to spending the money.” The staff was happy to say, “We want to do just that.” That’s the ministry of annoyance, it’s the voice that calls us from our standard way of doing things and makes us consider other options. We may not do everything suggested by the annoyers, but we are forced to give them consideration. They are the prophetic voice, and the conscience, in our midst.

But what about this “I’ll pray for you” thing? Obviously, I’d suggest a prayer of thanksgiving for the folks who annoy us. But that’s not my point here. I want us to look at another passage, and then I have some points about prayer, who you pray for, who you tell, and most importantly why you pray.

5And when you prayer, don’t be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners, so that people will see them. I tell you truly, they have their reward. 6But when you pray, go into your private room, close your door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. . . .

14For if you forgive people their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15But if you don’t forgive other people, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Now this verse is frequently quoted to suggest that prayer can never be congregational, group, or public. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is getting at. He is getting at the manipulative use of prayer, I think. There are several manipulative uses of prayer. One is being seen to pray publicly so that people will notice and believe you’re a praying person. That detracts from the purpose of prayer. Another is praying so that people will hear what you say. Have you ever heard a prayer that sounded like a sermon to the church, only it’s sort of addressed to God? I’ve heard that in committees, subtly hinting at how the committee should vote during the prayer. That’s praying so that you can be seen.

Praying and telling someone you’re doing it can be manipulative as well. When I tell a friend who is sick that I’m praying for them, that’s often a kindness. But when I tell enemies I’m praying for them, there is frequently a number of subtexts. One is the “I’m not giving up on you” subtext. Another is “I’m better than you are.” Then there’s “I’m right and you’re wrong, and God is going to either fix you or get you.” It’s quite possible, however, that you mean none of those things, that your concern is genuine (whether well-founded or not), and you want to express that concern. In that case you need to consider the message that will be received.

Communication involves necessarily more than one person. What you say, and what is heard may not be exactly the same thing. So give consideration to how people have used that same statement previously and how that may have impacted your correspondent.

But there’s something even more important. I regularly run into this issue in discussions of prayer. What is the purpose of prayer? Why do we prayer. Typically I will have said something that indicates I don’t believe God is going to necessarily do stuff for me when I pray. “Then why pray?” someone asks. I think that indicates a serious problem with our view of prayer. Too often we look at prayer as a way to get stuff.

One taunt used on atheists is that there are no atheists in foxholes. The idea is that when the atheist faces an imminent chance of dying he will turn to God for protection. That, in itself, implies an improper view of prayer. We know that many praying people nonetheless die in wars. We like stories of the soldier who is saved by the bullet striking the Bible in his breast pocket, but we tend to ignore the countless others who were carrying Bibles and yet died on the battlefield.

The problem is that all through our discussion of prayer is the assumption that the real purpose of prayer is to change God. When we pray for the person who annoys us, what we want is for God to change his course of action in that person’s life and make him more acceptable to us. The interesting implication here is that God was acting improperly in that person’s life, and required only the suggestion from us to correct himself. That’s particularly applicable to an enemy or an annoyance. We’d obviously like our enemies to be improved–according to our standards.

But I think we need to shift our whole way of thinking about prayer. Prayer, I believe, is about me communicating with my heavenly Father. Did my prayer work? If I communicated, yes it did. It’s not based on what I get, or how God changes, or did God make my enemy feel really bad about the way he’d treated me. It’s not even about God making sure my doctrinal opponents receive due correction from the Holy Spirit. It’s about me communicating with God.

Do I believe something happens? Indeed I do. I believe that God changes me, or perhaps more precisely he enables me to change. That fits well with the prayer in the private room. When you pray that way, it’s possible God may not correct your neighbor or your enemy; he may correct you and change your attitude toward that person.

I want us to notice something else about this passage. We often read it as “God punishes you for praying in the wrong way.” You’ll get your reward here on earth if you don’t do it right, but God is going to cut you off! I don’t think that’s the point. Consider the manipulative prayer. I tell someone I’m praying for them, but my real purpose is to make them feel bad and perhaps change their mind. My desire is earthly and my reward is earthly. God simply allows the universe to function. I wasn’t really praying to him in any case!

But the secret prayer–that’s to God. It can’t be manipulative, because nobody knows it’s happening. It’s just you and God. Where, other than your heavenly Father, will you get your answer?

I’d like to apply that to verses 14-15, which have troubled many Christians. They think that if they aren’t perfect in the record of forgiveness, God’s going to get them. But again, I think we’re looking at the natural results of certain behavior. God’s forgiveness results in reconciliation between you and God. If you remain unforgiving there’s a barrier that God won’t cross. He won’t force you to forgive.

I find there’s a great joy in communion with God. We don’t have to get tense about the secrecy aspect either. Just focus your prayer on God and you. Look at what God can change in you first. Let God take care of the rest. He probably is anyhow.


* The REAL CHRISTIAN trademark is in dispute, but the heavenly court which has jurisdiction is currently in recess for some cosmic laughter over the idea that some small group of creatures on a small planet in a sort of average galaxy could get the absolute corner on the creator of the universe. It is uncertain when they will return to decide who gets the trademark.

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