At a leadership meeting at my workplace one particular leader encouraged us to pray for those whom we might find difficult to lead. Whether that person is going through a difficult time, or are being particularly difficult themselves, we as leaders have a responsibility to shepherd and care for those who are entrusted to us. When you spend time in prayer for the well being of another human God will soften our own hearts to be more attentive to their needs (which may go hand in hand with how he fulfills those prayers).
This seemed like a solid piece of leadership wisdom, and as I continued to dwell on it, the Spirit began to expand the application and significance for me. I have noticed that this same concept is at play in Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies and those who persecute us. What stood out to me was that at times I might be tempted to be the enemy or persecutor myself, and if God blesses me with self-awareness through the conviction of the Spirit, I can combat that temptation with prayer for the well being of the other person.
Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.Matthew 5:43-45
But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.Luke 6:27-28
I began to consider that while there are times I have been treated as an enemy, it has been more often that I am tempted to act as an enemy of another, even against my own brothers or sisters in Christ. When I look even the most basic commands of God, I find that I am often tempted to sin against my neighbor. When I am driving and am tempted to hate the driver who blocks me out from merging (Matthew 5:21-26), or to objectify and lust after a woman (Matthew 5:27-30), or to covet the possessions or status of my neighbor (Mark 7:21-23), it is I who am being tempted to become the enemy.
When temptation to sin against another rises within me, I need God to soften my heart toward them. I can start by praying with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10). And then I can begin to fulfill the obligation of love I have for my neighbor by praying for their good. Paul exhorts us in Romans 13:8-10:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.Romans 13:8-10
When I say to pray for a person, I don’t mean some sort of passive-aggressive prayer, where I am making God my own ally against that person. The thoughts “God help that person to drive better” or “help that woman to be more modest” or “help that person to not be a show off” all come from the same place of self-righteousness.
If I know anything about the person, I can pray specifically for what they may be facing. I can pray for growth in their relationship with God. I can pray that God would reveal ways that I can serve that person. If I don’t know them personally, I can pray that God would bring the gospel to them, or that he would encourage them, or that he would show them kindness or mercy where they need it most. When my prayer is genuinely after their best interest, it is hard to continue thinking or acting against them. I begin to see them as a brother or sister in Christ, or one in need of the same mercy that I have often received.
This is absolutely NOT a discipline I have mastered. I share here not to prop myself up as a paragon of care for my neighbor. This is something I have only just begun to try to practice myself. I write partly because this is how I process and apply, and partly because I believe God has called me to share what I have learned or am learning with others as service to his Church. I also hope that by writing, when I am next tempted to make myself an enemy of my neighbor, that I would be reminded that by praying God will help me overcome my own sin.