Praying for the Conversion of our Enemies

Awhile ago, there was something of a debate on here as to whether it was legitimate for Christians to desire the destruction of their enemies.  I argued–not being an outright pacifist–that, although it might be legitimate in certain cases to take action to kill enemies, it would never be legitimate to rejoice in that action; we might have to destroy our enemies in rare cases, but we should never desire their destruction.  Various Biblical counterexamples were alleged against my position, and it was suggested that perhaps the difference between my interlocutor and I was that his position was logically a pure Calvinist position, whereas I tended to qualify my Calvinism with a heavy dose of Barthianism.  

So I was intrigued today to come across, in Calvin’s commentary on Romans 12:14-21, a resounding and powerful statement of the need for Christians always to desire the good and the salvation of their enemies–not only not to take vengeance, but not to desire that vengeance be taken:

“In this passage, Paul requires a train of conduct yet more difficult, not to pray for evil and curses to light on the heads of our enemies, but to wish them every kind of prosperity, and supplicate God to grant them every blessing, however much they may harass, and treat us with the most barbarous inhumanity.  We ought to labour after the attainment of this mildness with the more intense diligence, in proportion to the difficulty of its attainment….”

“Prayer for our enemies is more difficult than to refrain from the active revenging of an injury which we have suffered.  For there are some characters, who, notwithstanding they hold their hands from violence, and are not driven on by a desire of injuring their enemies, would still be glad to find destruction or loss befall them from another quarter.  Even if the injured are so much appeased as to wish no evil to their foes, yet scarce one in a hundred desires the safety and prosperity of the injurer; a large portion has immediate recourse, without feeling any shame, to horrid imprecations.  But God, by his word, not only restrains our hands from any act of violence and injury, but also subdues all bitter feelings in our minds.  Nay, he even desires us to be solicitous for the eternal salvation of those, who bring ruin on themselves by cruelly harassing us in an unjust manner.”

“Not only does Paul prohibit us from executing vengeance with our own power, but we are not to indulge such a desire in our hearts; and on this ground any distinction between private and public vengeance is altogether vain and frivolous; for that person is no more to be excused, who implores the aid of the magistrate with a malevolent intention, and a determined resolution to revenge, than we can acquit the voluntary contriver of plans for self-revenge; nay, we ought not always to ask God, as will afterwards appear, to avenge us; for if our requests for this purpose arise from private affection and passion, and not from the pure zeal of the spirit, we do not make God our judge, but a servant of our depraved desires.  We are not therefore to give place to wrath in any other way than by patiently waiting for the proper season for deliverance, wishing and praying, in the mean time, that such as now vex and disquiet us may become our friends by repentance.”  

“We ought not, indeed, to supplicate God to avenge our enemies, but should pray for their conversion, that they may become our friends; and if they pursue their wicked career, they will experience the same judgment, which other despisers of God may expect.”


Of course, then the question remains–what do we do with the imprecatory Psalms?

5 thoughts on “Praying for the Conversion of our Enemies

  1. One response to the imprecatory psalms is to take seriously the New Covenant revelation that our enemies are not flesh and blood, but are found in the powers of evil and sin and death. Human foes are neither to be hated nor is their downfall a cause for delight. But when Satan is pushed back, we rejoice, and we pray for the deceiver's lies to be exposed and overcome by truth, humility and faithfulness.


  2. bradley

    Hmm. But what about Revelation 6:10? It depends on what you mean by "vengeance", obviously. If you're just using it as a synonym for "justice", then what's the problem? God is the great avenger; vengeance is His. Isn't that precisely what enables us to pray to Him and ask for justice? And why can't we rejoice when we see justice happen, when we see the wicked punished? Why can't we sing, "Hallelujah! The smoke from them goes up forever and ever!" (Revelation 19:4. Read the whole chapter. And maybe chapter 18 as well.) The imprecatory psalms aren't your only problem here. There's a general theme running through scripture of Holy War against the enemies of God. Doesn't sit well with hipster Christianity, but it's an undeniable part of scripture. Are we supposed to be sad when God wins?Why can't we pray for and against our enemies (in different senses) in the same breath? Why can't we love our enemies as the humans they are, and also hate them insofar as their actions are evil and violent? A.k.a., love the sinner, hate the sin. It seems we have to do both, because God Himself does both. Maybe there's a danger in emphasizing too much of one or the other. Ultimately, here's my question: If hatred is a part of God's nature and His actions, then why shouldn't it be a part of ours as well? Disclaimer: I'm still pondering this subject daily, so everything I say in this comment should be considered tentative.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Brad, for asking the hard questions. I'd love to hear some answers, though as I am still pondering this subject daily as well, I don't feel in a position to offer them. When you say "hatred is a part of God's nature and his actions" though, that doesn't sound right. Traditionally, at least, while "justice" has been considered one of God's attributes, as well as "love," "hatred" has not. No doubt you have in mind certain specific passages (e.g., "Esau have I hated"; Ps. 5:5: "You hate all evildoers"; Ps. 11:5: "The LORD tests the righteous,but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence."); no doubt some would insist on reading these merely as anthropomorphisms…even if we don't do so, though, I don't think that "hatred" should be considered part of God's "nature." His nature is the necessary expression of his being. It is necessary for God to love–he would have done so even if he had never created the world. But without a creation, and without a fall, there would have been no room for God to hate. If God hates, then, it is merely an accidental by-product of his justice, not part of his nature. Perhaps just a quibbling over words, but an important quibble, I think.


  4. Hate what is evil (neuter singular, not masculine plural, i.e. evildoers). Overcome evil with good.I read Rev 18-19 as confirming my reading of Ephesians 6: it is Babylon the whore who is judged, denounced and overthrown. The enemies of God and his people are the powers and principalities, not flesh and blood. Those humans who identify as our enemies are to loved, prayed for and blessed.This discussion does raise an important eschatological question: what is the relationship between God's victory on the cross and his ultimate victory? If the cross is how he won his decisive victory, are we expecting the character of the final victory to be thoroughly different? Or was the suffering servant merely an instrumental necessity, to be abandoned for the conquering victor? I note that the rider on the white horse does indeed bear a sword, but it comes from his mouth. It is his words that are his weapons (again, resonance with Ephesians 6 and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God). Also, he is covered in blood, but covered with blood as he rides into battle: perhaps it is his own blood? Is the violence of this image being subverted?That is, I guess I'm interested in asking how you understand the holy war theme of the OT as having been completed/replaced/perfected/translated/updated by Christ the victor, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to his death?


  5. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Byron. Not sure that your remark about Rev. 18-19 solves the problem: "principalities and powers" may be designated by Babylon, but, depending on how you read Revelation, it almost certainly also refers either to the Romans, or to the Jews, or to some combination of the two. So, even if there were principalities and powers behind the human enemies, you can't get around the fact that there were human enemies here being judged as well, and God's people rejoicing over that fact. Your broader point, though, phrases the dilemma very nicely, and cuts right to the tension I have been having to deal with as I revisit the assumptions of my theological background. We do tend to think of the suffering servant as just being sort of a temporary persona that Christ took on, to be replaced by the warrior-king. We do not take it, in Barthian fashion, as a revelation of the fundamental identity of the Son, and his permanent character. And that dissatisfies me deeply, but I'm still not entirely sure I can reconcile your understanding (with which I am more sympathetic) with the biblical picture. And that's where Brad B. is as well.


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