Immediately the chatter began. Discussion of whether our nation’s leadership is doing enough, whether these acts truly represent Islam, how to respond going forward…all those arguments that you either want to flee or are all too eager to join.
Instead, I took refuge in praying for the families of the victims.
But later, I logged on to my Facebook account, hours after the tragedies…and was hit with an entirely new wave of grief.
Pictures of American military equipment assembled in rows with captions like “ISIS is doomed”…cartoons of American power symbols making their way overseas…snapshots of U.S. troops offering ominous proclamations to the Islamic State. The grim ill will echoing from the post-9/11 era, the hyper-patriotism that seems to go so naturally hand-in-hand with American Christianity.
Perhaps I have changed over the years, for I found myself aghast.
And struggling to reconcile it to the words of Jesus:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)
Praying for the victims of these unspeakable acts? Absolutely. That’s not so hard.
But are we praying for the salvation of the terrorists?
I mean, praying it ourselves? Not leaving it to our pastor or some other prayer warriors or anyone-else-just-not-me?
Let me clarify. We should not condone, diminish, or tolerate terrorism of any kind. These people are our enemies, by their own choice.
Indeed, that statement unsettles some of my readers. The church is divided on whether such a stark, divisive word as “enemies” fits into Jesus’ mission. Yet it is used here by Jesus, the same Jesus who touched lepers and forgave adulterers. We are free to take this Jesus at his word, regardless of how it fits with our personality or our tastes in political correctness. Calling someone an enemy is not hate. God is not asking us to deny reality. We have enemies in this world.
And the great thing that frees us to admit this? Labeling someone an enemy does not preclude praying for them.
In fact, praying for an openly acknowledged enemy only makes the prayer harder, more profound, and more holy.
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5:46)
Praying for terrorists does not diminish the suffering of their victims. If we had any idea what hell is like, even victims would not withhold their prayers.
And that’s the thing. We must never believe that terrorists are beyond grace. Because if they cannot be saved, then neither can we.
As Christians, we reject on theological grounds the belief that any sin is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. We reject it because it’s equivalent to believing that one can save himself if he just lives a “good enough” life.
It’s jarring to think that without Christ, we are no more absolved in God’s eyes than a terrorist. All my years of service to God as filthy rags to him. It disrupts and defies our entire value system. Yet the Bible leaves no other conclusion. If we can accomplish our salvation, then he is robbed of his glory in saving us (Ephesians 2:8). Once again, I am shocked and saved by the piercing truth of Jesus’ words, the glory of his immense grace.
And if I accept this grace, I become the servant from Matthew 18, who asked for a chance to repay his impossible debt and was forgiven it entirely (far more than he’d asked!). From there, my choice is either to withhold my prayers – or to forgive my fellow servants and hit my knees.
ISIS’ acts are horrific and vile. But I still owe my own debt. God’s value system is alien to mine, higher than mine. And not following his program would be…undesirable.
C.S. Lewis was once asked what separates Christianity from other religions. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “It’s grace.” No matter how a person has used his life, Jesus extends grace. By praying for the softening of hearts whom we acknowledge as our enemies, we have an opportunity to show ourselves to be forgiving “like our Father in heaven” (v. 48), to prove that our love can transcend hate, and that Jesus’ compassion is unique and supreme.
This week, let us pray for the salvation of our enemies.
Image Credit: Javier Vleras