As followers of Jesus, we have chosen the side of good over evil. Nowhere is this clearer than in regions of the world where persecution is the costly price Christians pay for proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — places, for instance, where ISIS is ruthlessly executing our brothers and sisters in the faith.
While the battle with evil certainly has physical manifestations, the deeper and more important war is spiritual and internal. When evil attacks, we cry out in prayer for God to help us. And what we ask God for tells us a lot about what we really want, and in what we hope.
“God, save your people!”
Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 6:4)
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matthew 26:39)
“God, save me!” is a very normal and understandable response to the evil of persecution. We hear it from psalmists and in the first half of Jesus’s prayer in the garden before his crucifixion.
If my family or I were in prison, we would want scores of people to pray this prayer on our behalf. I would certainly pray this prayer myself. Yet we need to remember that it’s only half of what Jesus prayed in Matthew 26:39, because we can quickly move to praying,
“God, punish them!”
May his days be few; may another take his office! May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit! May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! (Psalm 109:8–11)
“God, punish them” is also a normal response to the evil of persecution.
Again, we hear this prayer in the Psalms, but it is not how the New Testament teaches us to pray. We in the West tend to see persecution as a violation of our human rights, and so we expect and demand from God and governments both rescue and retribution from something God may actually be using for his glory, our spiritual growth, and the spread of the gospel. In other words, sometimes God needs Joseph in Pharaoh’s prison for the salvation of Egypt and the Jews in Egypt.
This is when we must pray the second half of Jesus’s garden prayer, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). This is important, because calling on God to punish our enemies can easily be our failure to love them as Christ loved us.
Followers of Jesus must press beyond these first two prayerful responses to evil and join Jesus and Stephen in praying,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)
“Father, forgive them” recognizes that followers of Jesus see themselves both as targets of satanic attack, yet still victorious in their Savior. Both Jesus, while hanging on the cross, and Stephen, while being crushed by stones, viewed their persecutors as victims in need of forgiveness, as well as individuals responsible for their sinful actions.
This response does not come easy, we all know. Seeking forgiveness for one’s enemies is counterintuitive, unpopular, and often seen as weakness, even sometimes by Christians.
In certain streams of the church, it seems acceptable for Christians to say hostile and even hateful things about Muslims. This is a tragic distortion of the gospel. The church’s greatness cannot be wrapped up with its nation’s greatness. The church is not measured by the size of its country’s political, military, or economic power, or its form of government. The church’s greatness is measured by its love, which is the sacrificial, dying enemy-love of Calvary (John 13:35; Matthew 5:44; Romans 5:8).
To respond to evil with prayers like Jesus’s and Stephen’s requires a devotion to “a better country” (Hebrews 11:16), and a faith rooted in the promise that even the worst persecution cannot touch our indestructible lives (Luke 21:16–19; John 11:25–26).
Forgiving our enemies displays Christlike love in a world out for revenge. And the more we grow in Christlike faith and love, the more we will pray the very dangerous prayer,
“Father, forgive us as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)
This is how Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Is there a more dangerous prayer for our soul? Do we really embrace its implication — that whether or not we forgive our enemies, including our persecutors, reveals whether our souls are saved from or still under God’s wrath (Matthew 6:15)?
In a world governed by the ancient ethic of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” it’s quite popular to repay “evil for evil” (Matthew 5:38–39; Romans 12:17). But living by the Christian ethic of “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is simply otherworldly (Matthew 5:44). It demands that we be defined by heaven on earth. Living the Lord’s Prayer in the face of hostility and persecution might be the most dangerous thing we ever attempt.
The more we see our enemies as those in desperate need of God’s grace, and the more we are willing to forgive as God forgives us, the more free we’ll be to embrace all the possible implications as we pray,
“Father, glorify yourself.”
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” (John 17:1)
“Father, glorify yourself” is what Jesus prayed just hours before the cross. He fully trusted his Father, which made him free and bold to walk full of faith into the jaws of persecution. And when we pray like this, it shows that our faith is not in governments or international human-rights declarations, but in God.
Such profound trust in God makes us as free to share Christ in Saudi Arabia as we are in South Dakota. We are as free to share our faith in North Korea as in North Carolina. No one can stop us from stepping out of airplanes, buses, and cars and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ anywhere.
Persecutors can certainly punish us for sharing our faith, but by doing so they end up helping us proclaim it all the more! If we don’t shrink back, if we don’t exit the fight at the entry-level prayers of “God, save me” and “God, punish them,” but press on to seeking our enemies’ forgiveness and God’s glory, we will know the joy of bearing spiritual fruit and seeing the kingdom come. We will live in freedom — not political freedom, but gospel freedom (John 8:32; Galatians 5:1).
Can we pray with Jesus, “Father, whatever it takes, glorify your Son through me today, that the Son and I may glorify you”?
Grow into This Grace
When ISIS or some other evil force attacks again, we will pray. The question is, what will we pray? When push comes to literal shove, what do we really want? Do we only want deliverance? Or do we want God’s glory to be revealed and our enemies to experience God’s grace even more than we want to escape from pain?
None of us likely can answer those questions as we would like. But let’s grow into God’s grace, and into these prayers, especially the last three, by praying them now, even if there is no threat of persecution. For evil will attack at some point, and we want to be as ready as possible if the glory of God, the eternal good of others, and the spread of the gospel require our lives or the lives of those we love.