“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ said Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43).
If you’ve ever wondered why many people refused to follow Jesus during his earthly ministry, you have to look no further than that verse.
In our day, we have watered down the term “enemy” so much that this command has lost much of its shock value. Today, “enemy” is used primarily in reference to people who are rude to us or treat us unkindly. We even use the portmanteau “frenemy” to refer to an associate pretending to be a friend or someone who really is a friend but also a rival.
But in Jesus day, the Jews in Israel had real enemies. For the entirety of their existence as a people they had been fending off enemies — from their slavery in Egypt to the state of occupation by their latest enemy, the Roman Empire. Telling them to love and pray for enemies was akin to telling the Christians in Iraq to love and pray for ISIS.
And yet, that is exactly what Jesus was saying. When Jesus gave the command to love and pray for our enemies he knew it would one day require praying for Islamic extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda who murder his Bride. Jesus was saying that when we think of those people, we no longer even see them as enemies. As John MacArthur explains, “we are not to be enemies of those who may be enemies to us. From their perspective, we are their enemies; but from our perspective, they should be our neighbors.”
But how do we do that? How should we pray for these neighbors who want to murder members of our family? Such a task is difficult, but there are three specific ways we can pray for those who are engaged in persecution against Christians:
1. Pray for their conversion
There are two primary reasons we don’t pray for the conversion of Islamic extremists. The first reason is that we believe it is absurd to think they’ll become Christians. The second reason is that we fear they might actually convert.
The first reason is more common, since praying the terrorists will convert seems like a useless plea. We recognize the theological truth that God can do for them what he did for us: provide the gift of grace that they might be saved (Ephesians 2:8). But we look at the situation “realistically” and tell ourselves that the probability of their genuine conversion is so close to zero that it would be a waste of our time (and God’s) to even bother to ask.
No doubt such conversions are unlikely and rare. Yet we should pray for their conversion anyway. If we truly love our enemy, how could we not at least petition God on their behalf?
Another, less frequent, reason we don’t pray for their conversion is because we fear they may actually repent. Like Jonah in Nineveh, we want our enemies to receive their just desserts, not mercy and forgiveness. Consider all of the Christians who dutifully prayed for the Nazis. How would they have felt if they discovered that Hitler, in the moments prior to his death, had truly repented of his sins and was forgiven by God? Many of those Christians would have felt cheated, as if it was unfair of God to forgive such horrific crimes. They would likely want to complain, as Jonah did when God spared the Ninevites, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2)?
But it is precisely because he is a gracious and compassionate God that we ought to pray for the conversion of our enemies. How could we do anything less than ask God to show them the same grace shown to us?
2. Pray the evil they do may be restrained
There is no dichotomy in praying for the good of our enemy and praying that their evil actions be restrained. It is to their benefit as well as ours that they be prevented from committing more evil. For those who have hardened their heart against God, it would be better that their life was shortened than for them to continue to persecute his children.
The protection of innocents from slaughter may require human governments to take military action against that Islamic extremists. We are warranted in supporting the just use of force in restraining such evil. But we should remember that while the death of the terrorists may be the only effective way to restrain their actions, we should not rejoice in their suffering or death (Proverbs 24:17).
3. Pray they will receive divine justice
Just as we seek justice on earth from duly established governmental authorities, we can seek the divine justice of our holy God. As John N. Day says, “[W]hereas love and blessing are the characteristic ethic of believers of both testaments, cursing and calling for divine vengeance are their extreme ethic and may be voiced in extreme circumstances, against hardened, deceitful, violent, immoral, unjust sinners.”
In asking that divine justice be done, we should be careful to guard our motives. Praying for divine justice can be a way to circumvent our duty to love our enemy. While we must leave vengeance to God, we must not forget what is commanded of us. As Paul writes in Romans 12:19-21:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the order of our prayers, asking for divine justice should be included as the “last resort” option, a plea for doing what is necessary for those who will neither turn to God nor turn away from doing evil.
As former enemies of God, we should be gracious and grateful that we are allowed to pray for our current enemies, secure in the knowledge that Jesus will hear us. We should be thankful enough for the grace of God that we want even our enemies to receive it too. But if they refuse and harden their hearts against the one who would spare them, then we must ask they receive the divine retribution due everyone apart from the righteousness of Christ.
Additional Resources: In discussions of praying for our enemies it's important to consider the role and relevance of the imprecatory prayers found in the Bible. The topic was too complex to address in this brief article, so for more on that topic I recommend Sam Storms' essay “Imprecations in the Psalms.”