How Praying for Enemies Changes Us

Praying for our enemies does not mean praying that they will slip on a banana peel or finally get what’s coming to them. It does not mean praying that our enemy will be transformed into someone different, someone we could get along with better. It does not mean praying that our enemies will come to see things our way. It is not a threat, like the woman in the country song who said to the ones who were gossiping about her, “You can talk about me just as much as you please, and I’ll talk about you down on my knees.” It is not about praying for God’s punishment or retribution for our enemies. It is about praying for their good.

Jesus said,

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt 5:44)

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35)

This attitude toward enemies is about their good, not our own. We do not pray that they will go to Hell, but that we will see them in Heaven. We should want the best for them, not defeat and failure. We should be praying out of love, and this is very, very hard. How can we learn to do it? How can we become more loving to those who are truly our enemies?

We Need Empathy for Our Enemies

Developing an appreciation for each other as human beings, engaging each other openly and feeling empathy for each other, is not easy, especially when the other is an enemy, an opponent, or a potential victim. In times of stress and conflict it is easy to see some others stereotypically as “all wrong,” whether the actual issue is critically important or simply seems to be so. Our opponent may be carrying a sign on the opposite side of a life-or-death issue like abortion or capital punishment, or simply wanting to paint the fellowship hall garish yellow when it would look so much better in a more welcoming shade of blue.

When we are polarized against specific people, we do not see the underlying common humanity we share. Their strengths, their values, and the struggles they have come through to reach the positions they hold are invisible to us. We are unable to see these others as whole people, and as a result we do not empathize with their feelings or have the ability to anticipate and share their pain.

True reconciliation means restoring a healthy and positive relationship as well as letting go of whatever anger or grievance you hold. Leaving your anger behind only brings you part of the way. It only brings you back to neutral feelings about the person you have a problem with. You may not be angry any more, but you are still not friends until you can replace your negative feelings with positive ones. This can only happen for real, deep in your heart. It isn’t enough to just pretend that you feel differently. You need to actually come to feel positively for the person who hurt you.

This can happen in lots of different ways, but the key is being open to noticing the good things about the person you have been mad at. It takes a change in attitude, because when you are angry, you tend to notice the things you don’t like about a person, and ignore the things you might like if you paid attention to them. It is necessary to change our selective noticing, to turn away from the things we don’t like and turn toward the kind of things we do like.

Praying for Our Enemy’s Good

One way to break this isolating distance from a particularly difficult other is to invite a interested third party into the relationship between us, that person being God. If we can approach the other with an awareness of God’s perspective, we can see that person from God’s point of view, as a beloved but far from perfect person with unique preferences, abilities, faults, hopes, and blind spots. This we can do by engaging with them in God’s presence, in prayer.

We can engage our hearts in caring for another by accepting and praying for the other’s needs and desires, by bringing that person before God in prayer. This must be a prayer purely for the benefit of the other, looking at the other through God’s own perspective and not from our own. This prayer is not “God, please straighten them out and fix their attitude,” but “bless them and help them achieve what they care about so deeply.” When we bring a person before God to pray sincerely for the real concerns of that individual’s heart, it is impossible to withdraw to a depersonalized view of that person afterwards.

When we pray for another freely out of God’s love, a miraculous thing happens. The Holy Spirit joins in our prayer, strengthening us and transforming our hearts as we pray. We engage with God in our good wishes and best intentions for the other, and we are changed in the process.

Growing in Prayer through Practice

There are many materials available to facilitate this kind of prayer experience. Most are categorized as Christian education resources on the topic of intercessory prayer, which combine teaching about prayer with specific exercises and practices. One good example is a program called Prayer Ministry Training which includes video presentations with accompanying discussion guide. It was created by Rev. Sandy Millar of Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London, the church in which the Alpha program originated, and is available through the Alpha program.

This particular material includes some specific guidelines for prayer practices which turns out to be very helpful. In each exercise, a team of two people prays for one person, and the groups in prayer can contain either men or women but not both. The result of this dynamic is that each person has the opportunity to pray for and be prayed for by folks who have been in opposition at one time or another. Those offering prayer learn to ask the recipient about needs and concerns, and they learn to listen carefully and check to make sure they understand what is wanted. The program lasts for six meetings or so, each with prayer opportunities, and it ends with a session of prayer for each other for filling with the Holy Spirit.

Consequences of Praying for Enemies

When this program was used in one particular church setting, the group of people who gathered for this program included church leaders who were part of each of the factions in the church. Twelve to fifteen people attended the sessions, including most of those who had the strongest feelings in the conflicts. It is likely that the attendance of opposing leaders was motivated in part by mistrust—a concern about what their opponents might be up to if left alone. Whatever their original reason for coming, all of the participants became engaged with the material presented and were willing to engage in the prayer exercises freely.

The program and practice of prayer was deeply moving and transformative for all the participants. There were times of hard work, as folks stretched to reach into God’s perspective in spite of a long history of wrongs on both sides. There were tears as “tough guys” who had been in opposition for years heard the loving care in each other’s voices. In the end participants were able to see and relate to each other as complex and complete human beings, and no longer only through the lens of the divisive issues. Each had had a chance to experience the good will of each of the others, allies and opponents, and they could no longer fit either into one-dimensional stereotypes.

An unexpected benefit of the program was that its alumni became practitioners of an active but very informal prayer ministry. Often during a fellowship event or even while hanging out in the kitchen, one of the group would hear of a need or concern and quickly gather two or three of the others for a short prayer. Factional history was left behind as these impromptu teams included those who had once thought of each other as enemies. The shared experience of prayer led opponents to become allies in ministry, even when their individual positions on other issues were still at odds.

Consequences of Being Prayed for by Enemies

Strangely, a transformation also happens in the recipient of a prayer from an enemy. Hearing a sincere expression of good will and appeal to God on our behalf, by someone we have thought of as an enemy, is intensely powerful. How can we not feel gratitude and even the possibility of affection for one who has been willing to step out and support us in our struggles?

For example, many years ago I was very active in our church’s adult education program, and I volunteered to work on the committee. I heard that the elder in charge one year was looking for a volunteer for a particular job. I was pretty shy in those days, but I wanted to ask for the job. One day, just as a meeting was breaking up, I went up to her and offered to do the work. She just stood there for a moment, not saying anything, and then walked away. Later I heard that she had given the assignment to someone else. I was hurt and embarrassed and very angry. That was no way to treat someone who was willing to volunteer. She could at least have said thanks but no thanks. I had a lot of complaints to make.

In my feelings about this church leader, a good thing about her caught me completely by surprise. In the evening service, joys and concerns were handled slightly differently than in the morning services. As each person made a request for prayer, someone else in the congregation offered to pray for them. One day I offered a prayer concern in that service, and this leader was the one who offered to pray for me. To hear a prayer for my problem in the voice of one who I had thought of as against me, just blew me away. It melted the frozen part of me that had still kept me from being fully open and caring with her. I was suddenly able to see her great strength and her faithfulness, in spite of other qualities I didn’t like as much. I was once more free to react and interact with her as a sister in Christ.

Prayer Transforms Us

Coming before God together in prayer is a transformative experience. We can no longer hold onto the emotional tension of the issues that divide us, because the love of God for our brothers and sisters is so great. Bringing our enemies before God, asking on their behalf for their own good, brings us closer to seeing them as God sees them and hoping for them as God hopes. Afterwards we may still hold opposing opinions and be working for opposite causes, but we are held together in the family of God by God’s love. We can grow to love our enemies as we love family members who disagree with us or drive us crazy, but are family nevertheless. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, happening in and through our prayer.

©2009 Jean F. Risley – All Rights Reserved