During his earthly ministry, Jesus said some shocking things. Perhaps none is more shocking than this part of ‘the Sermon on the Mount’: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ’ 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. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48)
Christopher Hitchens (died 2008), one of the most famous and boisterous atheists of recent years, saw the offensiveness of these words. Here’s how he responded when asked about the idea that someone could be commanded to love:
“Perhaps the most immoral injunction of all is the injunction to love your enemies. That, I will not do. I know who my enemies are. At the moment, most of them are homicidal Islamist theocrats. I’m not going to love them. You go and love them, if you want to. But don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them, destroying them, erasing them. But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all – it’s a wicked idea, and I hope it doesn’t take hold. What a disgusting order.”
Hitchens, of course, is right – if there is no God.
Unfortunately for him, there is a God – but not just any God. The God who is there is a God who blesses the good and the evil. He shows perfect love to the unlovely. And Jesus knows what he’s talking about. He was the one who faced the agony of God’s wrath for our salvation. He was the one who prayed for his killers: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).*
Jesus calls us to do something radical, shocking – even offensive. He calls us to love those who hate us. When we do this, we are acting as God’s ‘sons’ – bearing the family likeness, being like him. And what greater act of love is there than to bring our enemies before our heavenly Father in prayer?
This has to be one of the most radical ideas in the history of the world. It’s almost unthinkable. I mean, I manage to pray for my wife and children every day; I work hard to pray for close friends and the people in my ministry. But does my pile of prayer cards include a category for ‘enemies’? I thank God for people who support my ministry, but do I pray for people who oppose what I’m doing? I’m praying for the persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria, but do I pray for ISIS?
Before going any farther in thinking about prayer, let’s try and get our minds around this offensive idea. Prayer is not just a cosy way to uplift the people closest to us. If we really share God’s heart, we will love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
“All of us would be wiser if we would resolve never to put people down, except on our prayer lists.” (D.A. Carson)
Heavenly Father, I praise you that you are holy and perfect. Thank you that you loved me, even when I was your enemy. Thank you that you bless the just and the unjust. Thank you for the perfect example of the Lord Jesus. Please help me to be like you, and to love my enemies and pray for those who oppose or persecute me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
* I think most people assume Jesus is saying something like, ‘Father, forgive them, because they don’t quite get how evil this is, so it wouldn’t be quite fair for you to hold them to account. If they understood, they wouldn’t be doing it, so let them off.’ I think it makes much more sense to see Jesus saying something like, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do – but they should know what they’re doing!’ That is, they are culpably ignorant. Not knowing what they are doing is the very thing for which they need forgiveness.