A friend recently shared a problem she is having with a family member. After recounting several upsetting incidents that have occurred over the course of many years, she looked across the dinner table and said, “I know I should be praying for her, because we’re supposed to pray for our enemies, but frankly, I think I’d rather cut off my arm!” We collapsed into a fit of giggles that embarrassed our husbands, and then tackled the issues of 1. how difficult it is to pray for people who have been deliberately hurtful to us, and 2. the difficulty of trying to wash your hair or fold a fitted bed sheet with only one arm. I can’t do it with two.
Let’s take a look at that scripture in its entirety and see if we can’t find a way to comply with one of Jesus’ harder commandments, and help my friend keep her arm intact:
Matthew 5:43-48 New International Version (NIV)
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In the broader context, Jesus is making an imprint on his new and very radical theology of how the people of God are to behave. From the first sentence, he is righting the wrong of the old way, by reversing how we are to treat enemies. Love, not hate, is the new way.
But the point of this radicalism comes in the next sentence: pray for those who persecute you so that YOU may be children of your Father in heaven.
Did you notice that the instruction to pray is not so that your enemy might be changed? No indeed, the point of this prayer is so that YOU might be changed.
God brings the warmth of the sun and the replenishing rains to provide for the good and the evil alike. This is a reminder to us that God sees potential for change in everyone. He has always been in the saving and transformation business. How easy it would be for him to simply cast out the unrighteous, but instead he includes them into his kingdom by holding the door of repentance wide open.
Being good to your friends, and hanging out with your own kind is something non-believers do with great ease. There has to be a difference between those who follow Christ and those who don’t. So what Jesus is saying here is that we are not to be like others around us, but we are to be like him in everything we do. We are called to love unconditionally, forgive without hesitation, encourage and build one another up, and be patient and long-suffering when need be.
I shared with my friend that I had a person who was extremely critical of me, and publicly so, at the very beginning of my ministry. Her words and her actions were devastating and caused me great pain. I confided to an elder church member about it, and he calmly reminded me to “pray for my enemies.” And so I did, for three solid years. I prayed she would be blessed, whole, and healthy. Some days I prayed that I wouldn’t see her at church, because every time I saw her, I had to greet her with a kindness I didn’t always feel. Other days I prayed she would receive me differently, and that maybe we would someday be friends. I just prayed.
One day we found each other in the church on a Saturday when volunteers had gathered to do some work. She was on a ladder, and saw me walking down the aisle of the sanctuary. She called out to me, and asked if we could talk. In tears, she asked me to forgive her for those words she had spoken many years ago, and told me how much she appreciated that I had been civil to her even though she had hurt me.
I told her that I had forgiven her a long time ago, and as those words came out of my mouth, I realized that in all of those years of “praying for my enemy,” my prayers hadn’t changed the situation, but it definitely changed ME.
Prayer changes us. Prayer opens us, helps us to let go of stuff, reminds us that the stuff is really God’s anyway, and allows us to be the face of Jesus to the enemy. My friend may never have reconciliation with her family member, but by praying without ceasing for them, she is sure to receive peace and release. And keep her arm.
Photo by Janet Kuchta.