Of all the prayers I am asked to offer God, the most difficult one, I think, is when I’m asked to pray for those who mistreat me.
Actually, now that I think about it, those might be the easiest prayers to offer. What I mean is, it’s easy to ask God to strike my enemies down and return to them their own mistreatment. It’s also easy to ask for justice to be enacted and for God to pour out on them the full wrath and fury of his powerful hand leading to their demise. But even with the ease of offering those sort of prayers, I’m not so sure they are the ones I should be offering.
The ones I should offer, the most difficult prayers, are those asking for God’s mercy on those people who have wronged me. I think we’ve all been in the situation where the tables have turned and our former enemies find themselves in the midst of some deep struggles in life. Maybe their wife left them, their child died, they’ve been demoted, lost their house, or otherwise found themselves on the short end of a raw deal. It’s in these situations I find prayer difficult. I wonder if I’m I to pray for them, and if so, how?
My first, and usual inclination, is to rejoice in their demise, but lurking at the edge of my mind is the question of whether that is the wisest choice. Maybe I should join them in their mourning, their weeping, and their pain. Maybe I should pray and fast for them just as I would for close friends. Maybe praying for them is another way in which I can turn the other cheek.
In Proverbs 25:22-23 we are told,
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.
These verses seem to say we make our enemy’s life a living hell by doing good to them, but the key image in the third line is often misunderstood. “Heaping burning coals on his head” is somewhat like paying the heating bill for our enemy when he doesn’t have the funds himself. It’s not about raining hellfire down upon them or bringing pain into their life, it’s about humbling ourselves and seeking their good. The Lord rewards us for truly helping our enemy, not for the joy we might receive by giving them some back-handed aid.
I realize the previous comments may seem to run counter to what is found in Psalm 35, but I think the disconnect is only on the surface. As I’ve said before (see my entry on Psalm 28) I believe God uses many of the Psalms to tell us we are free to express how we feel, but it doesn’t mean he is a fan of us acting on our feelings. Prayer is the way we offer our feelings, desires, hopes, and failures to God so that he may begin changing us.
David begins Psalm 35 with a plea for God’s to intervene in his struggles, but he concludes the opening stanza with a plea to hear God say he is David’s salvation. David knows God is in control and will take care of all of his enemies, but David still wants some assurance from God. The cry of David’s heart is the cry to be dependent on God: to hear his voice, to see him act, and then to praise him. It is not a cry of vengeance, rather it is a cry of trust. We are called to trust God in the midst of despair and troubles, even when those we once called “friends” have turned on us and now seek our demise.
Many people have gone, and are still going through periods of betrayal not knowing what to do or when the blanket of oppression will be lifted, if ever. But as painful and possibly insensitive as it might seem to say, without such times we would never cry to God, as David did, “Say to me, ‘I am your salvation.’” Only when we are hurting can we recognize our need for a savior; when healthy, we think we can do it on our own. Such things are allowed in our lives, even orchestrated, for the purpose of bringing us to our knees where we can finally see with open eyes our need for help. They are not brought into our lives so we can wish harm upon the instrument of God’s choosing, rather they occur so God’s instrument can fashion sons or daughters out of a frail, yet proud person. It is for that reason some prayers are so difficult: we want to find the joy on the other side of despair but are unwilling to endure the necessary pain.