I have been reflecting lately on the words of Jesus: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
The teachings of Jesus have always been difficult for me - cryptic, strange, and sometimes offensive. These words especially bother me, but for some reason, I haven’t been able to shake them from my mind recently. I cannot help but ask, “what possible good can come out of praying for the people who have caused me pain?” What does that even look like?
It is one thing to admire the teachings of Jesus as one admires Buddha, the great Sufi writers or Ghandi. It is another thing to obey these words as if they hold the keys to our survival. It feels paradoxical, as if we must inflict more pain in order to escape pain. Unless of course the intent of Jesus was never pain-avoidance in the first place. This is also a difficult thought to swallow, especially in a culture in which every type of pain is viewed as an evil that must be pushed down with more medication. But perhaps Jesus had a different goal in mind altogether when he spoke these words.
I had a chance recently to try and put this into practice, and here is what I’ve learned so far:
First, praying for our enemies helps us recognize ourselves.
In praying for someone who had hurt me, I had the unpleasant experience of recognizing in them the same hurt, fear, and loneliness that I was feeling. Perhaps I couldn’t see it before because I was too busy scribbling devil horns on all their pictures. Perhaps I viewed them as my enemy precisely because I didn’t want to face my own fear. I don’t know. But somehow in the act of praying for them, I also saw myself. I still didn’t find this particularly helpful though, because now I only felt more pain. Instead of carrying the pain of one person, I now carried the pain of two. But Henri Nouwen writes that there is more hope in this state than we think: “a shared pain is no longer paralyzing, but mobilizing, when it is understood to be a way to liberation.” A hopeful person might assert that one cannot truly be enemies with a person in whom we see ourselves. A cynic might respond however, “not true! I don’t particularly like myself either!” I still think we need something more….
Second, praying for our enemies helps us recognize Jesus.
Christianity at it’s core is a strange, alien religion, because it worships a God whose great manifestation to humankind came through frailty, pain, and death. No matter how much gold and jewels you put on the crucifix, it is still a symbol of death.
Because of that, there is no pain, betrayal, or evil we can witness without also witnessing the person of Jesus. God is woven into our experience of pain.
It is also in this cataclysmic event of death that Jesus stepped into our shoes as enemies and strangers to God, giving us his place as trusted friend, child, and confidant. New Testament writers describe this event as a mystical trade - our divine alienation for Jesus’ divine favor. It means this: we are no longer enemies of God, but loved and accepted children. We didn’t earn it, because Jesus already earned it for us.
Perhaps we can bear to see ourselves in our enemy when we know how loved and accepted we are ourselves. Perhaps we can even begin the painful act of forgiving when we know the injustice Jesus went through for us. And maybe we will even find the strength to carry each other’s hurt and pain when we realize Jesus has already carried ours.
Peace and grace to you on your own spiritual journeys. Let’s continue to pray for one another.
~ Pastor Gabe