“Actually, the best thing you could do would be to pray for her...”
As a 7 year old, this was my introduction to the concept of praying for ‘enemies’. There was another child at school who had been continually nasty to me for no apparent reason. And whilst being comforted by my mum, this was the suggestion she’d made.
She didn’t just mean to pray for that person to change her behaviour and to stop upsetting me, but to pray blessings on her, for her to know God and to know goodness in her life.
I sat quietly, but immediately my inner reaction was “But… I don’t want to!” It didn’t seem fair or right or normal to pray for good for someone who was deliberately hurting me. She didn’t deserve my prayers!
But as a very young Christian, I had a basic understanding that we didn’t treat people the way that we thought they deserved, because God hadn’t treated us in the way that we deserved. He’d shown mercy and grace in sending Jesus to die instead of us, so we show mercy and grace to others.
The problem was actually doing it…
In Acts, we find the incredible story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who, even at the point of death, prays for his persecutors:
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep. (read the whole chapter here)
In his last moments, Stephen, like Jesus, prayed for the lives of his attackers, just like Jesus had done before him on the cross.
I can’t think of anything much more generous and selfless than praying for others in the midst of your own extreme and present pain. And not just thinking of others that you love whilst enduring that suffering, but praying for the very people who are causing it. Instead of appealing for justice, Stephen appealed for mercy.
In fact, do we owe in part the dramatic conversion of Saul (who is mentioned in verse 57 as being associated with the attack) to Stephen’s final prayer?
There’s something about praying for someone who’s hurt you that is perhaps even more difficult than doing good to them in person. It involves thinking of them during your personal time with the Lord, and confronting your own feelings towards them as you do so.
I did manage to pray in a simple way for the girl who had bullied me, and in the end, after many other people’s prayers, she became a sort of friend to me. Since then, I’ve had many, much more difficult, occasions where I’ve struggled to pray for people who have hurt me, and I still fight against that same inner resistance as my 7 year old self. Sometimes all I can do is be honest with God and repent for my own feelings of anger first.
But you can guarantee that when you commit to praying for your enemies, if nothing else, there will always be a change in your own heart.
You may not have 'enemies', but there may be difficult or irritating people in your life – pray for them to know more of God. And if the hurt is so much that you feel you can’t, start by praying that you will want to pray for them. And if that's still too much, pray to want to want to pray for them and for your heart to be softened towards them.