Pastor John, given the violence in the world at the hands of organized terrorism, a very prominent question on the minds of a lot of Christians is this: Should we be praying for the conversion of ISIS, or should we be praying for their destruction? What are some categories we need to process this decision and priority?
Let me answer in six steps.
1) There are God-inspired psalms which pray for the destruction and the damnation of enemies. God-inspired men, inspired spokesmen of his choosing prayed these psalms. Let me read a little bit of Psalm 69. And I choose Psalm 69 because Paul quoted it in this regard and Jesus referred to it four times in relation to himself, and it is one of the most severe imprecatory psalms. Consider verses 22–28:
Let their own table before them become a snare and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see and make their loins tremble continually. Pour out your indignation upon them and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation. Let no one dwell in their tents, for they persecute him whom you have struck down and they recount the pain of those whom you have wounded. Add to them punishment upon punishment. May they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living. Let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
So there exists such psalms which God inspired that men pray.
2) There are some situations in which a man like David in Psalm 69 is right to speak words like these. The situation we know of is when God moves a psalmist to pronounce God’s own judgment rather than merely express personal vindictiveness. It is not a license. These psalms are not a license to make damnation pronouncements or desires without a clear evidence that you are speaking for God and with God from God. That is step two.
3) We should always approve the righteous judgments of God. When we see that God has judged a person or a people, we should approve. It is blasphemy to criticize God for his judgments. Or, to put it differently, it is blasphemy to try to be more merciful than God.
4) When you have seen great and long hardness of heart, the time for praying for salvation might be over. It might be. It might not be. I say that because of 1 John 5:16: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, pray, and God will give him life. There is sin that leads to death. I do not say that one should pray for that.” He does not forbid prayer. John is not forbidding prayer for such sinning, but he does not command it either. “I do not say one should pray for that.” There is a fine line, isn’t there, between not praying for a person’s life and praying for a person’s death.
5) You may have prayed earnestly for the conversion of members of Boko Haram, say, if you live in Nigeria, or ISIS or Al Shabba. You may have prayed earnestly for their conversion. But now they are coming. They are at the edge of your village with machetes and they are cutting children in pieces and disemboweling women and beheading men on their way through the town. In that moment of destruction, you might take up the words of Psalm 58:6–9 and pray them in that instant.
Knock the fangs out of their mouths, O God. May they disperse like water running away. May their machetes be dull and never find their mark. May the rising sun melt them like a snail too slow to do its deadly work. May they arrive at the house of the innocent like a stillborn child. O God, save the poor from the violence of the wicked.
You may pray that. Yes, you may. Praying for damnation here would do little good for the village. What you want is the destruction of their murderous force against the innocent.
6) Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Surely such a prayer would be a prayer for their salvation the way Paul prayed in Romans 10:1, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved.” Surely that is what we are to pray for our enemies.
7) And I should add another point, I suppose. It wouldn’t have to be a step, just a conclusion like this: When our life is at stake — like Jesus on the cross or Stephen being stoned — when our life is at stake and we are being killed, may the Lord give us the Spirit of Stephen and of Christ. Here is what Stephen said: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59–60). Surely that is the way we would all like to die and live.
Yes. So let me ask a follow up question that will be more immediately relevant for Western listeners. When you see those military videos, green videos, and you see a truck full of ISIS soldiers with machine guns getting blown into oblivion in a fireball, what happens in your heart in that moment?
I don’t know what happens from time to time. I am sure there is mixture. I could describe sinful aspects of it, but I think what you are appropriately fishing for would be, Is there a good mixture of gladness and sorrow? And my understanding would be yes, and only God can see our hearts and know if we have arrived at the level of purity and godliness that we can delight for the right reasons in the destruction of a wicked path of life and wicked men and sorrow simultaneously for something happening to them that we would not want to happen to ourselves; namely, they are lost. They are going into eternity without Christ. And I suppose if we pause to reflect and sort out our emotions, we might even be willing to say, “Would that they had been captured alive, put in prison, and been brought to Christ.”
But in that moment you are seeing a providence of God perhaps even through sinful men. I don’t know who pushed the button or who aimed the rocket or what their motives were, but perhaps you are seeing a providence of God to end wicked life. And you know that his judgments are right and therefore in that moment there may be, I think, an appropriate mingling of approval of that providential judgment and a sorrow that they did not come to Christ.