The reluctant prayer

Most of us, I would guess, have someone we find annoying or who flat out drives us crazy. There are people who have hurt us in small ways and in large, sometimes carelessly, sometimes cluelessly, sometimes with deliberate and premeditated intent. We rub each other the wrong way and step on each other’s toes.

And that’s just talking about our family and friends.

The word “enemies” had a different connotation in biblical times, when people were frequently at war with neighboring nations and worshiped different gods. That’s not to say that those distinctions and the tensions associated with them have vanished, even in an increasingly connected and global world such as ours. Nor, of course, is it to say that we no longer have enemies.

The fact is that our brains treat anyone who angers and offends us as a threat. The more such offenses happen, the more we begin to anticipate them, feeling defensive and wary. Even if we don’t use the label, we perceive the other person as an enemy, increasing the likelihood that we’ll overreact to what they do or say.

It’s like having a big, burly bodyguard in our heads who is constantly scanning the environment for danger. Sometimes, the bodyguard makes the right call and gets us out of harm’s way. But other times, he sees a threat where there isn’t one, and his defensive actions create tension and conflict.

For the most part, unless we’ve trained ourselves differently, we don’t notice our internal bodyguard’s behavior. We see and respond to others as if they were our enemies, because as far as our overzealous protector is concerned, that’s simply what they are. We don’t recognize that there are other ways to interpret what’s happening and are not inclined to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We’re oblivious to the way in which our own defensive behavior is part of the problem.

Again, to be clear, sometimes the bodyguard is right: the other person really is a threat to us. But if we’re going to be people of peace in a broken and divided world, we can’t let the bodyguard be in charge of our relationships. Sometimes, we have to do something that seems unnatural and counterintuitive.

We have to pray for our enemies.

. . .

The apostle Paul, as we’ve seen, taught, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom 12:14, NRSV). To Paul, this is the embodiment of a genuine love that hates evil but refuses to do evil in retaliation, and chooses what is good, noble, and loving instead (Rom 12:9,17). “If it is possible,” he wrote, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (vs. 18). His counsel is realistic; he knows that peace is a two-sided affair. But he urges believers to choose the way of peace even if the other person doesn’t.

One way to do this is to heed what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45a). His hearers took for granted a beleaguered us-versus-them, Jews-versus-Gentiles way of seeing the world. That’s understandable, given what they read in the Psalms and Prophets, and their history of being persecuted and oppressed by one nation after another. In Jesus’ day in particular, the Jews had little reason to think kindly of the Roman Empire, and some sought retaliation through terrorism.

But these are the words of a Messiah who embodied the Father’s love, whose mission was to take the curse of sin upon himself. His followers were to transcend their hatred through sacrificial love. He wasn’t telling them to get themselves crucified. Nor was he telling them to manufacture loving feelings toward people they hated. He was telling them to act lovingly in one very concrete way: to pray for their enemies.

So simple.

So grit-your-teeth, go-against-the-grain hard.

Your bodyguard won’t like it.

. . .

Sometimes, listening to Jesus means not listening to your bodyguard. Some therapists would use a different metaphor: the bodyguard is just a scared and insistent little kid who doesn’t want to be hurt again. You can appreciate the ways in which your bodyguard keeps you safe. You can speak soothingly to the frightened child within you. But you can’t let them run the show, not when a mission is at stake.

Not when the mission is love.

We do not, of course, naturally feel loving toward the people we perceive as enemies. But here’s the surprising thing that happens when we do what Jesus asks: praying a blessing for our enemies can help us see them through God’s eyes. Our bodyguard/scared child calms down. And if we keep it up, our feelings begin to change.

We can expend our energy in hatred, in thoughts of vengeance, in saying and doing things to force others to change.

Or we can change ourselves, and do what Jesus and Paul taught.

There are no guarantees, of course, how others will respond. But we don’t do it to change their behavior. We do it because this is God’s way, the way of love, the way of peace.

The way, in other words, of the cross.