How to Pray for Your Enemies

This article is part of the How to Pray series.

“Pray for Those Who Persecute You”

Jesus gives numerous examples of the kinds of behaviors involved in loving our enemies. The first mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount after the command to love is prayer. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). And “Pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). This is enormously important in telling us how Jesus thinks about what love is. First, it tells us that love really wants the good of the enemy. This is confirmed by the supplementary command, “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28). To bless is to desire someone’s well-being and turn it into an expressed longing directed to God. For example, Jesus knew the famous blessing from Numbers 6:24–26, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Do this, he says, for your enemy. Your enemy needs the light of God’s countenance to shine on him and melt his heart.

All That Jesus Commanded

John Piper

In this repackaged edition of What Jesus Demands from the World, John Piper walks through Jesus’s commands, explaining their context and meaning to help readers understand Christ’s vision of the Christian life and what he still requires today.

Therefore, it is clear from this specific command that love is not merely behavior. To be sure, it is doing good for the enemy, but not merely that. It is also a heart desire. I base this on the assumption that when we pray for our enemies, we ask for God’s blessing from our heart. Jesus is not commending hypocritical prayer. He is not calling for show-prayer. He is calling for real prayer, that is, real Godward desire for the good of our enemy. Love really wants the enemy to experience God’s best. Doing good things is not enough. The heart must aim at the best we can hope for the enemy.

What to Pray for Our Enemies

Not only that, the command to pray for our enemy tells us what that best is that we should want for our enemy. Fourteen verses after this command in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us what he expects us to pray. He tells us to pray like this:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
      on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
      as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
      but deliver us from evil. (Matt. 6:9–13)

It would be unwarranted to think that the loving prayer for our enemy should ask for less important things than we are told to pray for ourselves. So I assume this prayer is what we should pray for our enemies.

  • This means that we should ask God that our enemy first and foremost come to hallow God’s name, that he value God above all and reverence him and admire him in proportion to God’s worth.
  • We should pray that our enemy come under the saving sway of God’s kingly rule and that God would exert his kingly power to make our enemy his own loyal subject.
  • We should pray that our enemy would love to do the will of God the way the angels do it in heaven with all their might and without reservation and with purest motives and supreme joy.
  • We should pray that God would supply our enemy with all the physical resources of food and clothing and shelter and education and health care and transportation, etc. that he needs to fulfill God’s calling on his life. We should want this for him the way we want it for ourselves.
  • We should pray that his sins would be forgiven and that he would be a forgiving person.
  • And finally we should pray that God protect him from temptation and from the destructive powers of the devil.

This is what love prays.

Love really wants the enemy to experience God’s best.

It is pathetic to see love stripped of God. Even some Christians are misled into thinking you can love someone without longing for and praying for and aiming at the exaltation of God in the heart of their enemy. What is so sad about this is that it not only betrays the diminished place of God in the heart of the Christian, but also implies that there can be real love where we don’t care if someone perishes eternally, as long as they prospered here on earth. It is true that our love and prayer may not succeed in wakening our enemy to faith in Jesus and to the hallowing of God’s name. Love is the aim of our sacrifice, not its success. We may or may not succeed in the Jesus-exalting, God-hallowing transformation we aim at. But a heart that does not aim at our enemy’s eternal joy in Jesus is not the full-orbed, robust love that Jesus commands. It is a narrow and pathetic substitute, no matter how creative and sacrificial and media-admired the labor is for our enemy’s earthly welfare.

Love prays for our enemy with all the aims and longings of the Lord’s Prayer.

“Father, Forgive Them, for They Know Not What They Do”

The most compelling example of praying for one’s enemy was the prayer of Jesus on the cross. After the simple, understated fact in Luke 23:33, “There they crucified him,” Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This prayer draws together three acts of the heart involved in loving our enemies: prayer, forgiveness, and mercy. Jesus is unremitting in commanding that his disciples be forgiving people.

When Peter asked him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21–22). In other words, “Don’t set limits, Peter. Let the mercy in your heart be as bottomless as mine toward you.” “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Mercy and forgiveness are needed when there is real guilt, real offense. The “enemy” has really wronged you, and you “deserve” suitable recompense. That is when mercy and forgiveness become relevant and urgent. Mercy says, “I will treat you better than you deserve.” And forgiveness says, “I am willing not to count your offense against you. I want the relationship to be restored.”

Why Do They Need Forgiveness If They Don’t Know What They’re Doing?

Jesus’s prayer illustrates this, even though at first it seems not to. He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Forgive those who murder me because they don’t know what they are doing.” This raises the question: Why forgive a person for what he does not know he is doing? Wouldn’t we say: “Father, since they don’t know what they are doing, they are not guilty and don’t need to be forgiven”?

Isn’t it either-or? Either you know what you are doing and need to be forgiven, or you don’t know what you are doing and you don’t need to be forgiven? Why does Jesus draw attention to their ignorance of what they are doing and ask God to forgive them?

The answer is that they are guilty for not knowing what they are doing. Forgiveness is only needed for the guilty. Nobody can forgive an innocent person. So when Jesus says, “Father, forgive them,” he means they are guilty. Then when he says, “For they don’t know what they are doing,” he must mean, “And they should know what they are doing. And they are guilty for not knowing what they are doing.” In other words, they have so much evidence of the truth that the only explanation for their ignorance is they don’t want to see it. They are hard and resistant and have a guilty blindness. That is why they need to be forgiven.

So here are Gentiles and Jews killing the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, the most innocent and loving man who ever existed. But they did not know who they were killing. For this ignorance they were guilty and in need of forgiveness. And amazingly, Jesus is praying for them that his Father would open their eyes and help them to see their sin, repent, and be forgiven. That is the beautiful thing about this prayer of Jesus: It declares guilt and offers forgiveness at the same time. It helps us love our enemies by reminding us that our enemies are really guilty and that this must not stop our love and mercy and forgiveness. Most of all it helps us because we know that Jesus was suffering for us and praying for us. We are called to love and forgive our enemies because we have been loved and forgiven when we were the enemies of God.

This article is adapted from All That Jesus Commanded: The Christian Life according to the Gospels by John Piper.

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