I turned away from the news report I’d just read.
Police in Virginia were looking for a man who had tied a pit bull to a pole and set the dog on fire. I held my breath as I imagined the horror of the scene—for the dog and the person who found him—but slowly released it as my mind shifted to “praying” God would provide eye-for-an-eye-style justice for this man’s crime.
I was just a little short of “delighting” in imagining what I was asking God to do, when He held up a hand.
During my lament over the brutality of this world, over the torture of this poor animal, of asking God to be swift and harsh in punishment for this most monstrous human, that “still, small” voice of the Spirit wafted in my mind with a most annoying suggestion:
“Pray for those who persecute you.”
I mean, I recognized Jesus’ words. But after seeing the pictures of the dog, I was mad. Plus, I wasn’t the one being persecuted. This was hardly the time, God!
And yet, again, I heard, “Pray for those who persecute you.”
Before I could argue back, the fuller words of Jesus from Matthew 5 sprang to mind: “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.” I sighed. Just days before, I’d been telling a friend that the only enemies I could think of were people who were cruel to animals. I struggled with feeling actual hatred toward them. And here we were, God reminding me how to treat my enemies.
So I resolved to change my prayer. But how could I lovingly pray for a person who intentionally sets a dog on fire and walks away?
How could I lovingly pray for a person who intentionally sets a dog on fire and walks away?
I wasn’t sure—at least, not without the prayer descending into more calls for vengeance. But, handily, in the same sermon during which Jesus told us to love our enemies, He taught us to pray. The genius of this prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 lies not only in its simplicity and beauty but also in that it’s somehow general enough to cover praising God, asking for healing, and anything in between. And yet it’s still specific enough to fit any circumstance just right. The Lord’s Prayer gives us words for every and any situation.
This prayer that Jesus taught us had long been my go-to when I was consumed with worry or in the depths of despair. It was my go-to when I was upset with my friends or fretting over my kids. It was my go-to when I wondered what on earth God was up to in my life.
In short, the Lord’s Prayer was my go-to when I had no idea what else to pray.
And this was one of those times. So I prayed the Lord’s Prayer for the man who lit a dog on fire.
I began: “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name …” But before concluding with “Amen,” I stopped, circled back, and adjusted.
“Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give that man this day his daily bread. And forgive him his debts …”
Handily, in the same sermon during which Jesus told us to love our enemies, He taught us to pray.
And the most amazing thing happened: Somewhere during the course of praying for God’s will to be done in the man’s life, for him to receive whatever daily bread he needed, for forgiveness to be offered and granted, and to be led away from evil, my own personal longing for vengeance dissipated. As I said a prayer I’d said countless times for myself and my loved ones, I saw the man in a whole new light—a communal light.
It’s hard to ignore such a truth when you pray the Lord’s Prayer for others. Especially when you remember this prayer quite intentionally begins with “Our Father.”
While I’m also a fan of swapping the “our” for a specific name (and I do this for my husband and kids every day), it’s the “our” that makes praying this prayer for our enemies so powerful. After all, Jesus wasn’t singling out certain sinners or certain righteous people to offer these words.
This is a prayer for all of us—in community together. We’ve all sinned and been sinned against. We all need to be given our daily bread and to be established on the right path. We all need to receive forgiveness and to be kept from evil. And we’re all deeply loved by our merciful God.
When we see others this way, it’s hard to think of them as our enemies.
While I still feel the man who did a terrible thing to a vulnerable creature should face some kind of justice, praying the Lord’s Prayer for him—and knowing these words are also for me, for you, for all of us—removed him from my “enemy” list.
In fact, after praying for him, I began to pray for others who have wounded or angered me—those by whom I felt betrayed or belittled. I began to pray for people who have done unspeakable acts. And a funny thing happened: My view changed, and my heart opened toward them.
I can’t promise that praying the Lord’s Prayer will turn enemies into best friends or evil-doers into saints (forgiveness doesn’t mean erasing boundaries, after all), but Jesus told us to love enemies and pray for persecutors. And then He taught us how to pray. That’s worth paying attention to—and making a part of our daily life.