Praying with Scripture – Part Six – What about our enemies?

What are we to do when people make our lives a misery? Can we ask God to “smite” them?

Christians are not immune from difficulties and we are certainly not immune from having enemies or people who take pleasure in seeing us fall. In fact, 2 Timothy 3:12 suggests that all of us who attempt to live a Christ-like life will suffer some form of persecution for our faith.

In the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms, there are many instances of God’s people responding to being oppressed, attacked or persecuted (see also Part 3 – “Negative” Emotions). They sometimes didn’t just pray for help and rescue, but for the downfall of their enemies:

  • “Let the heads of those who surround me be covered with the trouble their lips have caused. Let burning coals fall on them; may they be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, never to rise… may disaster hunt down men of violence.” (Psalm 140:9-11, NIV)
  • “May his days be few… May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars… May a creditor seize all he has… May their sins always remain before the LORD, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.” (Psalm 109:8-15, NIV)
  • “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9, ESV)

These are strong words and rightly make us feel very uncomfortable. They are full of raw emotion and show the ugly side of our humanity; evil behaviour so often results in a spiral of evil thoughts and the desire for revenge that can then lead to other evil acts that perpetuate the cycle.

Some verses in the New Testament seem to take a different attitude:

  • “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matthew 5:44, NLT)
  • “Never take revenge, my friends, but instead let God’s anger do it. For the scripture says, I will take revenge, I will pay back, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19, GNT)

So, can we still pray for our enemies to be punished? Jesus certainly seems to have wanted to soften the attitude of God’s people towards their enemies. Yet, Paul appears to suggest that the only thing that would be wrong would be actually carrying out revenge ourselves – praying for God to take revenge on our behalf looks (according to Romans 12:19) to be ok.

How might we reconcile these apparently divergent views? We might say that those who wrote the Old Testament were still on a learning curve – they hadn’t yet realised that God wanted them to be different to other nations by not demanding horrific revenge and reprisals. But, that doesn’t really account for Paul’s advice.

An alternative possibility might be to recognise that we do get wronged and are angered by it and the best way to deal with this is to vent before God, telling him what we would (in our anger) wish on others. This avoids taking revenge ourselves and puts the matter in God’s hands. Indeed, the New Testament still suggests that some will unfortunately be on the receiving end of some form of punishment from God – punishment for wrong is not simply an Old Testament idea.

Leaving matters with God involves us trusting him to do the right thing. It involves a long term commitment on our part to divine justice rather than a quick tit for tat. God can take our angry, twisted wishes for violence and translate them into true justice and in his timing – maybe soon, maybe a long time off, perhaps not until Christ returns.

Yet, although this “venting” may be more healthy than taking matters into our own hands, it still falls short of where we can aim to be – following the example of Jesus. Once we have dealt with our negative feelings, we can be transformed by God as we release them into his hands and allow ourselves to see our enemies in a new light.

God can transform our anger into a loving concern for those who have wronged us. Like Jesus, we can come to the point where we can pray for their forgiveness, because they do not know what they are really doing.

Our anger can serve a positive function by indicating that injustice has been done – we have indeed been wronged and God has been sinned against. Yet, it is not up to us to remedy things. We are right to notice sin and injustice and right to voice it to God. The right thing to do then is to leave it with him and pray for our enemies in love.

What do you think? Can you vent your anger before God or do you just hope it goes away? Can you find ways to pray for your enemies in love whilst also praying for justice?

© Joe Lenton, July 2012

Praying with Scripture – Part Five – Surprising Prayer Partners

Who do you like to pray with? Depending on how introvert or extrovert we are, we may find it easer to pray on our own or in groups. Yet, even when we pray on our own, do we ever really pray alone?

  • “Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, I am there with you.” (Matthew 18:20, CEV)

Jesus promised his disciples that he would be there with them when they gathered in his name. There would always be an extra member at any prayer meeting – Jesus himself.

This is a great encouragement, especially if our prayer meetings feel somewhat routine or if we despair that more people don’t want to join us. We are there together as God’s people and this means that Jesus is there with us. There is always that promise that the greatest VIP we could ever wish to attend our meetings is in fact present by his Spirit.

But, this is apparently not the only way in which our prayer times are blessed by the presence of an incredible prayer warrior. Whether we are gathered in pairs or groups or even on our own, there is always someone else who is praying with us and for us:

  • “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Romans 8:26-27, NIV)
  • “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:34, ESV)

The Spirit helps us to pray. Even when we are at our lowest, finding it impossible to know what words to use and struggling on our own, the Spirit is there, praying with us and translating our needs and desires to the Father.

Intercessory prayer is prayer that is done on behalf of someone else. It is something that we might think of as part of our personal and corporate prayer life. Amazingly, it is also part of the inner conversations of the Trinity. The Son and the Spirit are always there interceding – praying for us – whether we realise their presence or not.

How might you remind yourself when you pray (either alone or with others) of the presence of Jesus and the interceding power of the Spirit? How might a greater awareness of the Son & Spirit praying with, through and for you enhance your own prayer life?

© Joe Lenton, July 2012

Praying with Scripture – Part Four – Checking our priorities

What do you pray about most? Do you say the same things or pray about the same issues every time you pray? Sometimes, persisting in prayer is necessary. Yet, at other times, it may be that our balance is not quite right and that we could do with changing the tune and praying about something else.

It is easy for us to get too focussed on one or two issues in prayer. This might be because they matter to us, or it might be because we have run out of ideas. Praying for our needs, e.g. health, is a good and right thing to do. Yet, do we remember to pray for our spiritual needs as well? Similarly, how much do we pray for other people’s spiritual lives as well as their health and general well-being?

If we look at some of Paul’s letters, we see some interesting ideas for praying for ourselves and others:

  • “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9-11, NIV)
  • “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” (1 Corinthians 14:1, ESV)
  • “making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power” (Ephesians 1:16-19, NKJV)
  • “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,” (Colossians 1:3, TNIV)
  • And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,” (Colossians 1:9, ESV)
  • “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” (Colossians 4:2-4, NIV)
  • “My dear friends, we always have good reason to thank God for you, because your faith in God and your love for each other keep growing all the time.” (2 Thessalonians 1:3, CEV)

Even if we don’t use this precise language, we can still pray along these lines for one another. They were themes that clearly mattered to Paul and they would have helped the churches he planted to get a sense for his priorities in prayer, particularly in pastoral prayer for others.

Perhaps you could take one of these ideas and add it to your prayer for today?

Praying like this for others is an act of love. Praying intelligently about details of people’s lives and following up to find out if prayers have been answered are great ways of building relationships and communities. Perhaps our vision as individuals and churches can grow through thinking pastorally and theologically about how we pray.

© Joe Lenton, July 2012

Praying with Scripture – Part Three – “Negative” Emotions

Is prayer just for praising God and asking politely for things we’d like? Maybe that is what happens if we think God is an Englishman – we can’t go round showing emotions, can we?

The “stiff upper lip” doesn’t seem to have been an Israelite trait. The Psalms are full of direct, searching questions, born out of frustration, fear, loneliness, desperation and other “negative” emotions:

  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer…” (Psalm 22:1-2, NIV)
  • “Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;  there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin” (Psalm 38:3, TNIV)
  • “O Lord, all my longing is before you;  my sighing is not hidden from you.” (Psalm 38:9, ESV)
  • “O God, listen to my complaint. Protect my life from my enemies’ threats” (Psalm 64:1, NLT)
  • “Our God, why have you  completely rejected us?  Why are you so angry  with the ones you care for?” (Psalm 74:1, CEV)
  • “Listen to my prayer, O Lord, and hear my cry for help! When I am in trouble, don’t turn away from me! Listen to me, and answer me quickly when I call!” (Psalm 102:1-2, GNT)

It is not just the Psalmists that are so frank with God about how they are feeling, others do it too:

  • “O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me… Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:7, 18, NIV)
  • “‘It’s too much, Lord,’ he prayed. ‘Take away my life; I might as well be dead!'” (1 Kings 19:4, GNT)
  • “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!'” (Ecclesiastes 12:8, NIV)

Yes, it is true that in many instances these feelings are turned around and a positive attitude of faith then follows. However, this does not mean that the initial feelings didn’t occur, were invalid or inappropriate to bring to God. The turning point seems to have come after these emotions were voiced.

So, how honest are we about our feelings in prayer? Do we tell God how we really feel or hide behind a veil of piety, saying what we think we are “supposed” to say?

© Joe Lenton, July 2012