O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 816)
God is good. Yet, in this world, evil lurks. Enemies abound.
In a Civil War account I was reading recently one of the soldiers said, “It’s one thing to shoot at the enemy but quite another to tend to their wounds. Then they look a lot like us.” In a world filled with evil, it’s hard to remember that in God’s eyes all of us are beloved children. How do we embrace that truth which Christ proclaims and still protect ourselves from evil?
Terrorist attacks again remind us that we have global enemies but most of us struggle far more with personal enemies, unhealthy people that threaten us or even unhealthy behaviors in our own lives that threaten to undo us. Those kind of enemies totally consume us. We rise and fall according to what the enemy has done most recently. The enemy becomes the entire focus and we believe we cannot survive as long as the enemy still exists. We think the enemy has to change or disappear completely in order for our lives to be restored. Until the enemy is rooted out, our lives cannot continue. We quickly lose perspective and give all our power to the enemy.
Counting someone or something an enemy does reveal some good things. It can show that we have discernment as we note evil vs. good or unhealthy vs. healthy. While Christ shows that all people are children of one God, he also participates in the good vs. evil struggle. He himself is purely good but in the face of the evil of those crucifying him, he prays, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Christ seems to know evil when he sees it, somehow still has a respectful attitude toward those who are participating in it, and trusts that God will defeat evil in time. How do we learn from that? Is there some practical truth we can apply? I think so.
The first practical step seems to be acknowledging that there is evil in the world, that things are amiss. Pretending things are alright the way they are doesn’t help. The next step seems to involve acknowledging that evil has me in its grasp too. That’s a hard step to take. It’s much easier, after identifying enemies, to convince myself they are evil and I am good. We often do that to justify ourselves or to justify actions we take against our enemies. But knowing that evil lurks in my own heart leads me to the deeper truth of good vs. evil: only God is good and only God can reconcile that which is evil. That doesn’t mean we can’t fight against it. It just means that we are part of the problem too. When we forget that, we become more part of the problem.
Maybe that’s why Jesus implores us, commands us, to pray for our enemies. They are sinful. They are missing the mark. I am sinful. I am missing the mark. To pray for our enemies is not to ask that they become more like me. To pray for our enemies is to ask that all of humankind, ourselves included, be transformed into the image of the Christ.
Marriage doesn’t succeed when I believe my spouse needs to be more like me in order for us to get along. Marriages succeed when we both know that our problems exist due to some sort of mutual dysfunction. That doesn’t mean that I am responsible for my spouse’s unhealthy behavior. It just means that the way I relate to her is part of the cause. Succeeding in marriage has to do with identifying just where my behavior is unhealthy and asking for God’s help to work on that. It also involves identifying my spouse’s unhealthy behavior so that I don’t encourage it. But thinking she is evil and I am good is a sure formula for failure.
Praying for our enemies, be they as far away as ISIS or as close as a spouse, is asking for us to be reconciled. It is asking that God allow each of us to know our part in the conflict and to be open to changing. It is acknowledging that I cannot change someone else. And that I can only change myself with God’s help. But it is asking for that help for both of us to change. Prayer is putting my attention on God’s power to change. Prayer is knowing that, while I can’t even know what needs to change, God can change us all.
Maybe one reason God allows evil still to lurk in his creation is that it can bring us to prayer. We can’t change our enemies. We can’t even change ourselves. And so we are driven to our knees to ask for God’s help. Evil lurks, yet God is good. Believe in God more than evil. That’s really what praying for our enemies is all about.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.