How Do I Pray for My Enemies?

by Jan Shrader

Have you ever had a difficult person in your life? Maybe it was a family member, or a co- worker. Maybe it was a next-door neighbor you found yourself in a dispute with or even your boss.

Learning to deal with difficult people was not a skill I wanted to develop. I am not a psychologist, but learning to navigate through my own emotional wounds has given me insight in how God uses our hurt to develop muscles of mercy in our own lives. It is one of the ways God is bringing good from the evil, which was done, to me. How do you handle an ongoing conflict with a person who is determined to win at any cost? Friends may urge you to forgive, and you have, but what do you do when the person continues to hurt you, and the hurts pile up. It is obvious to everyone this person is in no mood for repentance, so what do you do? How can you respond in a way that is God honoring without losing your self-dignity in the process? Look at this parable which follows Jesus’ words in Luke 6:37-38 on giving mercy:

Luke 6:39-42

“He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, `Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”’

This parable reveals why most of our efforts to resolve broken relationships fail. When we are hurt it is easy to hyper focus on another’s failing and blindly miss our own sin problem. This parable gives us insight into how God sees our hypocrisy. When dealing with difficult people in our lives we need to remember God is most interested in the transformation, which needs to take place in our own heart. He has allowed this conflicted person into our lives with a purpose. They may be making our life miserable, but that suffering has a divine agenda behind it. God wants to expose the plank in our own eye first. Maybe he wants to use this complicated relationship for some deep self-introspection and repentance before he can use us to remove the speck in their eye.

As long as our goal is to change the other person we won’t awaken to our own need for transformation. When we are wounded there is a great temptation to replay the offense over and over in our head, and when we do this, one of two outcomes is inevitable in our reasoning. One outcome of not capturing our thoughts is to embrace a victim’s mentality. At the end of the day this person will always view himself as the victim, helpless to ever protect himself or overcome his wounding. The second possible outcome of concentrating on our abuse like a never-ending movie rerun is a destructive attitude of self-protection which leads us to become as mean as our abuser ever was. Sadly, bitter self- protection will not bring us the peace we long for or protect us. Jesus’ call to bear his image upon the earth offers us a third option. We offer mercy not because we have to, but from a place of strength and choice. As an act of our will we courageously choose to forgive. Nobody is forcing us to forgive it is our willful choice. Under Jesus’ direction every time we are tempted to replay our abuse we can capture our thinking by actively praying for our enemies (Luke 6:27-28). God is not the author of our struggle, but he allowed this combative situation for a higher purpose, so we would become people of mercy.

Luke 6:41 calls the relationship in question a brother. Family conflicts are complicated by the fact we often feel we are not free to escape them. If it was my boss I could quit my job, though that might not be a possibility in a bad economy. If my difficult person is a neighbor, again in a good market I could move. But you can’t stop someone from being your brother. The first thing we need to understand if we are going to find permanent release is this exercise is not about their sin. Let’s admit they are sinful and deserve judgment, but what needs to happen to us so we can experience God’s peace?

On the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Following Jesus’ example Stephen voiced this same prayer in Acts 7:59-60 as he was being stoned to death. 

There is an early church tradition that this prayer was widely adopted by the early Christian martyrs as they marched to their deaths. They mercifully prayed for their abusers’ forgiveness as they submissively went to their death in the Roman coliseums for worshiping Jesus. These unusual acts of mercy are credited with slowly converting an entire empire to the cause of Christ. One of my seminary professors loved to point out, “Praying `Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ is still one of the most relevant prayers we can pray today for someone.”

When hurt we must be careful how we process that hurt. The more betrayed we are the more tempted we will be to judge the other person’s motives and justify ourselves. An overwhelming desire to judge others is a symptom of self-protection and self-righteousness. The sad part about this attitude is it will not protect us like we thought it might, because of one simple reason. We cannot read minds. Only God can read the intentions of a heart. Only he can purely judge someone’s motives, because he is the only one in possession of all the facts. Praying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” is a positive way to capture our thinking. It is choosing to function from a place of strength and mercy. God knows the “whys” behind someone’s behavior, an asset in self-protection mode we might not even consider. The truth is all behavior has a purpose. Even when a person does not know why they act the way they do, there is a reason behind their conduct. Knowing the motivation that drives someone’s behavior doesn’t release him or her from the consequences, but it can give us insights into a person’s impulses. By modeling and praying this prayer of intercession at his greatest hour of need Jesus was showing us how to offer mercy, redirect our thoughts, and positively control our thoughts (2 Cor. 10:3-5). It may feel insincere to pray this prayer in the beginning because of the way anger can stir our emotions, but when we act on what we feel the Holy Spirit is calling us to pray, eventually our emotions will catch up to our will. If this prayer seems like a lofty task take a deep breath, ask God to enable you to pray in the power of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 618), and don’t lean on your own understanding (Prov. 3:5-6).

In Luke 6:27-28 Jesus taught us,

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Maybe learning to pray for our enemies is as much about our future as it is theirs. Is it possible that supplication for those who hate us is the most protective posture we can assume? When we bring before God’s throne of grace those who curse us we are exercising spiritual muscles of mercy and faith, because we do not know how God is going to use our obedience in prayer. Praying for those who abuse us is not a lofty idea reserved for super Christians and missionaries in Africa. Jesus’ desire is that we choose to place our feet exactly in his footsteps.

God is patiently wooing us to his ways. He is urging us to think his thoughts and be conformed to his image, so we can be a channel of his mercy. This is not the way we naturally want to respond to hurt. When faced with the temptation to replay those old tapes of offense in our head we must realize the choice we make will determine who we will become. When we find ourselves confused and don’t

Know what to do; we can remember it is always appropriate to pray, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Conflict is unfortunately very normal, mercy is not.

•  Does it bother you to recite a rote prayer like, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”? Does it feel sincere? Why? ?

•  The Greek word translated “repentance” in the New Testament means, “to change your thinking”. How do you need to change your thinking about those you are tempted to hate? ?

•  Read Ephesians 4:26-27. Why do you think Paul urges us to deal with anger before the sun sets? ?

•  Passages for further reading on the value God places on merciful prayer and forgiveness: 1 Sam. 12:23- 25, 2 Chron. 7:14, Prov. 3:5-6, Matt. 5:43-45, 6:5-6, 6:12, 18:21-35, 26:41, Luke 22:31-34, Romans 8:28- 29, Eph. 4:26, Col. 3:13, 3:21, 1 Peter 3:7. ?

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