Several places in the Bible command us to pray for our enemies (Luke 6:27, 35; Romans 12:20). Most familiar to us is the passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:43–45, Jesus said, “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.” It is clear that Jesus expects us to pray for our enemies, but how do we do that?
Our first response to that question is probably not the right one. When someone wrongs us, we’d like to pray that disaster falls on them! We may be tempted to pray the imprecatory psalms and hope to sit back and watch God exact vengeance on the evildoers, much like Jonah did outside of Nineveh. But that is not what Jesus meant by praying for our enemies. He had something better in mind that will benefit us as well as our enemies.
When someone sets out to cause us harm, our natural reaction is to protect ourselves and fight back. They gossiped about us; we’ll gossip about them. They lied about us; we’ll lie about them. They smeared our reputation; we’ll smear theirs, too. However, Jesus calls us to a higher standard. He demonstrated that standard by never retaliating when someone wronged Him. And they wronged Him a lot. His own people rejected His message (John 1:11). The religious leaders mocked and tried to trap Him (John 8:6). His own family was ashamed of Him and tried to make Him stop preaching (Mark 3:21). His friends deserted Him in His worst moment (Mark 14:50), and the city who had cried “Hosanna!” when He arrived in town shouted “Crucify Him!” a few days later (Mark 15:13). So, Jesus had enemies, and, when He said to pray for our enemies, He knew what He was talking about.
Jesus gave us a perfect example of praying for our enemies when He was being nailed to a cross. In the middle of His own agony, He cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He talked to His Father about the people who were harming Him. He did not ask for their destruction; He did not pray for revenge. He prayed they would be forgiven. Jesus had compassion on the deceived people who believed they were doing the right thing by killing the Son of God. They had no idea what was actually taking place. They had no idea how wrong they were. When Jesus said, “They don’t know what they are doing,” He hinted at an important factor to keep in mind when we pray for our enemies.
The enemies we pray for hurt us from their own world of hurt. Their thinking may be influenced by the devil (2 Corinthians 4:4). Their attitudes may have been shaped by past wounds (Judges 15:7). Their actions may have been manipulated by peer influences (2 Kings 12:13–14). None of this excuses their behavior or minimizes the damage they cause, but it helps to explain the why of the matter. People do what they do for their own reasons. They may not be valid reasons, but they seem so to the ones who hold them. So how do we pray for those who have hurt us and never tried to make it right?
1. We can pray that God will “open the eyes of their hearts that they will be enlightened” about truth (Ephesians 1:18). When enemies set themselves against us, they lack understanding. They are reacting from the flesh instead of responding from the Spirit. We can pray that God will open their hearts with understanding so that they will learn from their mistakes and grow wiser.
2. As we pray for our enemies, we can pray for their repentance. Second Timothy 2:25 says that “opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” It is God who softens hearts enough for repentance. When we pray for our enemies to repent, we know we are praying in accordance with God’s will because He also desires their repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
3. When we pray for our enemies, we can ask that our hearts will remain soft and useful if the Lord wants to use us to accomplish His plan in the lives of our enemies. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). When we return anger for anger, wrong for wrong, we put ourselves on the same level as our enemy. But when we respond with kindness, gentleness, and mercy, the situation is often diffused within moments. Nothing is more convicting than a gentle response to a hateful, rude action. It’s what turning the other cheek is all about (see Matthew 5:39). Satan desires discord, so he tries to stir up our fury and coaches us to respond in kind. We should pray that God keeps our hearts soft toward the offenders so that His goodness will be revealed to them through us.
4. As we pray for our enemies, we can pray that God will work in their lives because of this offense to bring about His purposes. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). It is always right to ask that God’s will be done in any situation. We should pray until we want what He wants. If He wants to bless our enemy, we want that, too. If He wants us to serve our enemy in some way, then that’s what we want. Prayer is the aligning of our wills with God’s; when we pray for our enemies, we need to wrestle through our emotions until we truly want God’s best in their lives.
Praying for our enemies is not a natural response to their mistreatment. But we remember that we were once enemies of God ourselves, and we are now His children. We can now intercede for others who are still far off (Colossians 1:21). In doing so, we keep our own hearts free from bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). In praying for our enemies, we become more like Christ, and we keep ourselves in harmony with God’s will, which is how every human being was designed to live.