Praying for Others including our Enemies by Philip Yancey
All the quotations below are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Prayer: Does It make Any Difference?” published in 2006.
The purest form of love is given with no expectation
of return. Measured by this standard, earnest prayer
for others is a magnificent act of love.
Knowing of my interest in prayer, a friend forwarded to me an email and asked for my opinion. I had received chain-letter emails about golf balls and moneymaking schemes, but never one pertaining to prayer.
An American soldier in Iraq had learned that his wife back home had been diagnosed with stage-four cervical cancer. Doctors gave a bleak prognosis. Feeling helpless, separated by half the world from his distraught wife, the soldier sent an email message to his church. Members of the church then forwarded his prayer request to all their contacts:
Pray and forward. It only takes a second to hit `forward’. Please do it and don’t delete this, your prayer can and perhaps will save her life. Please pray and ask everyone you know to pray for the HEALING of Cindy, removal of all cancer in her body so she may enjoy all that life has to offer, and to continue to be the wonderful mother to our five-year-old son.
The email raised questions for my friend. Does prayer operate like a pyramid scheme—the more people who pray, the more likely the answer? Does a sick woman who happens to have praying friends stand a better chance of recovery than an equally deserving person who does not? Exactly how does prayer benefit someone other than the pray-er? And how can something I pray for have an impact on another person without infringing on his or her free will?
Some of these questions, such as whether quantity matters, no one can answer with certainty.1 I learned of an earlier email campaign in which the sender promised that if one million Christians prayed, then Saddam Hussein would resign voluntarily, forestalling the impending war in Iraq—a prayer that obviously went unanswered. Surely prayer does not operate according to a mathematical formula in which God calculates the total amount of prayer-pressure being applied.
Yet in places like South Africa and Eastern Europe, mass prayers did seem to make a difference. The Bible itself includes some examples, such as God responding to Israelite slaves in Egypt because `I have heard them crying out’. The prophets pleaded with entire nations to repent and in some cases (notably Jonah’s Nineveh) they did. Paul solicited group prayers from places like Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Apparently the shared concern of many people has an effect.
As God Sees
Intercession—praying for others—introduces some of the most puzzling issues of prayer. The more I mull over intercession, the more it calls for a shift in how I look at the world.
Thanks to the scientific method, most people in `developed’ countries have an outlook of mild deism. We assume things like weather and disease operate according to fixed natural laws. Every so often, though, problems impinge on us so directly that we stretch beyond that mildly deistic stance and ask God to intervene. When a drought drags on too long, we pray for rain. When a young mother gets a diagnosis of cervical cancer, we solicit prayers for her healing. We beseech God as if trying to talk God into something God otherwise might not want to do.
My understanding of prayer calls me to recast that perspective on the world. I take as my starting point what I learn about God in the person of Jesus. The Gospels make clear that Jesus wants all people everywhere to experience the love of God, because he devoted his life to conveying that message. They also make clear that Jesus desires physical health for us, because not once—not once—did he turn down a request for physical healing.
I begin, then, with the central core of reality: God is love, and desires the best for us. True, not all people welcome or even care about God’s love, and not all people enjoy physical health. That means something must be interfering with God’s ideal for this planet, but it does not change the prime fact of God’s love.
God is looking for a beachhead of presence in the world—a body, we might say, and indeed that is the very image Paul seizes upon in his letters. We the `body of Christ’ have formed a partnership to dispense God’s love and grace to others. As we experience that grace, inevitably we want to share it with others. Love does not come naturally to me, I must say. I need prayer in order to place myself within the force-field of God’s love, allowing God to fill me with compassion that I cannot muster on my own.
This way of viewing the world changes how I pray for others. Crudely put, I once envisioned intercession as bringing requests to God that God may not have thought of, then talking God into granting them. Now I see intercession as an increase in my awareness. When I pray for another person, I am praying for God to open my eyes so that I can see that person as God does, and then enter into the stream of love that God already directs toward that person.
Something happens when I pray for others in this way. Bringing them into God’s presence changes my attitude towards them and ultimately affects our relationship. I pray for the neighbour who is always trying to sneak out of paying his share of the service charge and begin to see him not as a conniver but as a friendless man who lives with constant financial worries. I pray for my drug-addicted relative and see past the irresponsible behaviour to a wounded, desperate soul.
In short, prayer allows me to see others as God sees them (and me): as uniquely flawed and uniquely gifted bearers of God’s image. I begin seeing them through Jesus’ eyes, as beloved children whom the Father longs to embrace. I know that God wants their marriages to grow stronger and their children to stay out of trouble; God wants them healthy, and strong to resist temptation, capable of reaching out to others in need. I bring those prayers to God because I know God wills the very same thing. What I desire in the people I pray for, God desires all the more.
Praying for those whom I love gives me a glimpse of how God must feel. I cannot impose my own wishes; God, who probably could, chooses not to out of respect for human freedom. In many cases I can see behaviour that needs to change, for their sakes. I see relatives and friends making choices that hurt others in addition to themselves. Yet, as every parent knows, we have limited influence over any other free person unless we resort to some coercion that will likely backfire. In the Prophets, and in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, God expresses the exact same dilemma.
Once I catch a glimpse of another person through the eyes of God, I feel a prod to respond as part of Christ’s body—God’s incarnate presence—on earth. And, of course, what changes me does change the other person. I begin to treat my neighbour and relative in a different way, tinged by God’s grace. I write my troubled friends notes of encouragement, and ask how I can help. I pray for those in other countries who work with prostitutes, prisoners and orphans, and find myself digging deeper to send financial help. Nothing spurs compassion in me like prayer.2
I look back with special fondness on an early-morning prayer time held weekly when I worked for Campus Life magazine. We convened at 7 a.m., an hour before work began, and the gathering was strictly voluntary. Over time, though, the handful of us who met learned each other’s secrets. We got to know each other’s stories, including the colourful family members and the private pains and struggles. Then, after praying about each of the specifics of those lives, we would join together in the combined task of putting out a magazine.
You treat a typist differently during the day, I found, after listening to her describe her self-image problems—`Will I always be just a secretary?’—and praying with her that morning. You are less likely to judge a computer programmer for his irritating mistake when you hear how deeply that mistake affected him. In short, you begin to see fellow workers not as cogs in a machine but as human beings graced and loved by God. That hour in the morning brought us together in a new kind of order, not one based on ranking and salary, but as men and women with hopes and longings, fears and struggles, dreams and devastations. It brought us together in the orbit of God’s searing love.
A Widening Circle
`Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him,’ wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When I bring others before God, I bear in mind that God is present both to me and to the people for whom I am praying. Starting from the centre point of God’s love, my prayers move outward in widening circles, like ripples in a pond, from those closest to me to those in the distance.
I know my family and my good friends best. I try to be as specific as possible, praying for my niece’s problem pregnancy, my cousin’s battle with alcohol, my neighbour’s prodigal daughter—again, not telling God anything new but involving a third party in the relationship, a Person who cares more about each of them than I do. I ask that God will use my love and concern, my prayer, to help bring about the good that we both desire.
Sometimes intercession produces change in the person prayed for, and sometimes in the pray-er. Virginia Stem Owens tells of her practice of laying out requests before God in evening prayers and then listening for God’s response. She waited in the darkness one night, hearing nothing before finally drifting off to sleep. In the early morning hours, just before dawn, she started awake and found herself weeping. A memory had come to her subconscious of a spinster aunt who had moved in with her family when Virginia was a young adolescent. Virginia had been promised a room of her own, but with her aunt’s arrival her brother got the private room and Virginia got the consolation prize: a semi-invalid aunt as a roommate.
Over the weeks and months that followed, Virginia barely concealed her bitterness, showing it in a thousand subtle and caustic ways. That night in bed, years later, she realised she had harboured the grudge her whole life:
But now, in this early morning light, I was feeling for the first time the scalding shame this elderly woman must have felt. Moving from house to house, never having one of her own. Totally dependent on the good graces of nieces and nephews for the very necessities of life. Never in all my years at home, or indeed until now, had I given a single thought to how she felt in the situation. But now I was getting a full dose of it—the pride that had to be swallowed daily in a galling gulp. It was more bitter than I could bear.
The next evening Owens repeated the exercise, offering her petitions to God and then listening awhile before falling asleep. Something similar happened the following morning: another incident resurrected from her past, again with shattering results. Prayer became a time of confrontation and then healing as she brought her relationships into the presence of a Mediator.
For years I have kept a list of people I pray for on a set of note cards. One day I pray for family members by name. On alternating days I pray for friends, neighbours, fellow writers, and those ministering in the inner city or other countries, and then I use one day as a spiritual checklist for myself. Like Virginia Stem Owens, I find that my attitude changes in the very act of praying. Instead of writing off my cousin as irresponsible, I begin to see him through the compassionate eyes of Jesus. I think of ways in which I can offer personal help for the very problems I am praying about.
Some twenty years ago I wrote to a well-known author that I would pray for her one day a week because I imagined the kind of pressures she would face. `No one had ever once said he was praying for me,’ she told me later. `Consequently I felt obligated to be worthy of your prayers, to remain a Christian writer, to do it as well as I could.’ I know that feeling, because I too have been on the receiving end of prayers. A reader who had read one of my books as her three-year-old daughter underwent surgery for a brain tumour sent me an extraordinary gift: a Prayer journal in which she had filled in the blank pages—365 of them—with handwritten prayers for me. Sometimes on an odd day, say 3 March or 19 August, when I am feeling discouraged or lethargic, I’ll turn to a prayer she wrote on my behalf several years ago and find it eerily relevant to that day’s struggles. I tried writing to the woman recently and got a postal notice that she had moved, with no forwarding address. Her prayers live on: I, too, seek to be worthy of them.
When I study the prayers of the apostle Paul, I see clearly the widening circle of God’s love. Paul prays constantly, night and day, for his fellow worker Timothy and often mentions other individuals by name. He prays for a slave-owner, Philemon, even as he presses for the slave’s release. He prays for close friends, yes, but also offers passionate prayers for churches he has visited and even some, like Rome and Colossae, he has not. He prays for an entire race, his fellow Jews who cannot accept Jesus as Messiah.
I think about parallels in my own life twenty centuries later. I hear a report on AIDS in Africa. Better yet, I visit Africa on a writing assignment and see in person the abandoned babies with stick-figure limbs and orangish hair lying motionless in bed, and hear in accented English the stories of women infected by their adulterous husbands and now ostracised from the community. That night I pray for the faces I have seen, and they become not just faces but fellow human beings who have fallen victim to evil on this planet. As I pray, their pain becomes mine, and I bring their plight before God. I search my soul for ways in which I, one person who lives an ocean away, can convey God’s own love and concern for them. Who might best embody that love, and how can I help?
Or, closer to home, I hear that a friend of mine in another city is consulting a divorce lawyer. I know the circumstances well enough to know that no physical abuse or adultery is involved, just two people who have grown weary of the hard work of marriage. I bring the two, husband and wife, before God. All too easily I jump in with my own strong ideas of what should happen and pray for that result, but this time I confess I do not know all the facts. I hold out my hands, cupped in an open position, and present the couple to God. I try to imagine what healing would encompass: many tears, perhaps counselling, exposed secrets, the slow wash of forgiveness. I ask for that, and ask what role I can play as their friend. Aware that the marriage may have fractured beyond repair, I pray for them and for my response in that event as well.
At its best, my prayer does not seek to manipulate God into doing my will—quite the opposite. Prayer enters the pool of God’s own love and widens outward.
Pushing the Boundaries
Frank Laubach, the founder of the modern literacy movement and a missionary to the Philippines, describes how he sought to pray for everyone he met, keeping an undercurrent of prayer going throughout his busy day. `One need not tell God everything about the people for whom one prays,’ he said. `Holding them one by one steadily before the mind and willing that God may have His will with them is the best, for God knows better than, we what our friends need, yet our prayer releases His power, we know not how.’
Laubach applied the same principle to people who lived beyond the circle of acquaintance, to world leaders he would never meet. After all, the New Testament commands prayer for such people. According to Laubach, we would accomplish more for the world by praying faithfully than by walking into the White House or Whitehall or the Kremlin with suggestions. Our personal advice would most likely be misguided, but prayer for leaders summons an invisible spiritual force that can have real effects—not by persuading God to try harder, but by persuading the leaders to try harder.3
`Love your enemies,’ Jesus said, widening the circle of prayer beyond anyone’s comfort zone: `pray for those who persecute you.’ During most of my life, Russians and Chinese were enemies, representing what seemed an implacably violent threat to the West. Now we co-operate with both nations and trade and cultural exchanges flourish. Our former enemies have human faces.
On a trip to Russia in 1991 I participated with a group of Christians who actually prayed with officers in the KGB. `We invited you because we need to learn the meaning of the word “repentance”,’ said the presiding colonel. After we left, he proceeded to distribute two million copies of the New Testament to Russian army troops. With shame I realised that during the Cold War not once had I prayed for Russian leaders. Perceiving them as mere enemies, I never took the step of bringing them before God and asking for God’s point of view.
What about Islamist radicals who now oppose the West with violence? What effect might it have if every Christian church adopted the name of one Al-Qaeda member and prayed faithfully for that person? More, should we be searching our souls prayerfully for the very symptoms in our society that arouse such opposition in the first place? The evening of September 11, 2001, my church filled with several hundred members who spontaneously assembled with no prior announcement of a service. Stunned, we pondered such questions as, Why do they hate us? At such a moment we instinctively turned to prayer, for our nation, for the future, for the families affected by the tragedy, for our leaders. A few days later the leaders themselves held a public prayer service in Washington’s National Cathedral. For a brief time Americans turned inward. Prayer in awareness of enemies, not to mention prayer for enemies, offers an opportunity for self-reflection; in a strange way, our enemies help to define us as much as our friends do.
In a letter to his brother, C.S. Lewis mentioned that he prayed every night for the people he was most tempted to hate, with Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini heading the list. In another letter he wrote that as he prayed for them, he meditated on how his own cruelty might have blossomed into something like theirs. He remembered that Christ died for them as much as for him, and that he himself was not `so different from these ghastly creatures’.
Almost everyone has an enemies list. For some in the United States it may include fundamentalists and right-wing Republicans; for others, secular humanists and the ACLU. Elsewhere, Christians face outright persecution from governments and religions. True followers of Jesus, however, hold in common his stunning command to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us. In so doing, we join together to extend the widening circle of God’s love to those who may experience it in no other way.
In a passage from The Cost of Discipleship, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer contemplates that most difficult command. Jesus’ enemies were no distant threat from overseas; they followed him around (probably listening to him as he spoke those very words), plotting against him and reporting on him to another set of enemies, the Roman occupiers. Bonhoeffer found himself in a parallel situation as Hitler’s spies stalked him, scrutinised his sermons for signs of disloyalty, censored his writings, and looked for excuses to arrest him.
`We are approaching an age of widespread persecution,’ Bonhoeffer warned prophetically. `The Christians will be hounded from place to place, subjected to physical assault, maltreatment and death of every kind.’ By praying for such enemies, he continued, we do vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves. Who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred? Through prayer we stand beside our enemies and plead to God on their behalf. (In the Gospels, the demon-possessed never asked Jesus for a cure; they were incapable. Instead, other people brought them to Jesus.)
Members of the religious orders the Little Brothers and the Little Sisters of Jesus take a vow to live among the very poor, especially in slums, places of armed conflict, and in Islamist areas where Christians are not welcome. They seek ordinary jobs such as cleaning houses or factory work, and spend their spare time in communal prayer. They do not preach, or even get involved in much social work. They simply live alongside their neighbours, quietly show them love, and they pray, believing that by doing so they will `drop by drop’ allow the gospel to penetrate the world around them.
We are called to widen the orbit of God’s love beyond friend and family and acquaintance, beyond even the boundaries of propriety and justice, to enemies themselves. We do this because God’s love already extends that far: `Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,’ Jesus prayed for those who were in the act of killing him. A few months later one of Jesus’ followers faced similar straits and responded as Jesus had, praying for those who were executing him, `Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ Among those who heard Stephen’s haunting words was a young man named Saul, an enemy of Jesus who would become the greatest missionary of all time.
`God loves his enemies,’ concludes Bonhoeffer; `that is the glory of his love.’ We defeat our enemies by loving them, and prayer activates that love. If I nurse a grudge and have not the strength to forgive, I present to God that wound, along with the one who inflicted it, and ask for strength I cannot supply on my own. (Could this be why Jesus prayed, `Father forgive them …’ from the cross rather than pronouncing, `I forgive you’?) In effect, I transfer the wearisome burden to One far better equipped to carry it. Over time, the wound shows tender signs of healing. God works in me what I could not work in myself.
When a Christian magazine asked its readers to reflect on their most difficult prayers, it received the following response from a woman in Arkansas:
Several years ago, when my daughter married, she revealed to me that my brother-in-law had repeatedly molested her when she was four. My first response was to pray for her healing from this man’s evil. But the more I read about sexual abuse, the more I learned many abusers have been victims of abuse as well. I felt compelled to pray for my brother-in-law. Where I got the strength to pray this prayer, only God knows. It’s not natural for a mother to pray for those who hurt her children. But I realized he’d never change without God healing what probably were very old wounds in his life. I struggle daily to forgive him, and worry that by doing so, I’ll minimize the pain and suffering he’s caused—but who else is going to pray for this man? [293-304]
1. Not for lack of trying, however. Historian Paul Johnson reports that at the University of Louvain, where Erasmus spent some time, teachers and students were in 1493 debating the topics: do four five-minute prayers on consecutive days stand a better chance of being answered than one twenty-minute prayer? Is a prayer of ten minutes, said on behalf of ten people, as efficacious as ten one-minute prayers? The debate lasted eight weeks, longer than it had taken Columbus to sail to America the previous year, 1492.
2. The Book of Common Prayer includes a lovely prayer for ‘the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them.’
3. In one famous instance in US history, the leaders themselves turned to prayer after reaching an impasse. In four contentious weeks the Constitutional Convention had failed to write a single word. Benjamin Franklin, a man not known for his piety, rose to address George Washington, ‘The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men.’ He went on to state his fear that the various factions would argue their own interests and reach no agreement: ‘without his [God’s] concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.’ Franklin then made a motion, ‘That henceforth prayers, imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning,’ initiating a practice that continues in the US Congress to this day.