Prayer: Premeditating Peace

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Dear friends,

November 4th marked the first anniversary of Ethiopia’s devastating civil war. It also brought the answer to a prayer I’ve been praying for the last fourteen years.

This collision of intense grief and long-awaited joy reminded me of the great importance of sustained prayer. This practice has changed my life, and I hope you’ll consider making it part of yours.

It’s a bit like taking a wild leap of faith, twirling through the air, and learning to land on your feet.

How do you pray about people you don’t like? And how are you preparing for conflict or peace in your society?

I believe these two questions are intimately connected and have profoundly practical implications for our lives. Let me try to show you why.

Psalms against the Enemy

If you read straight through the Book of Psalms, it is striking to track how frequently the psalmist talks to God about his enemies.

Out of 150 psalms, “enemies” are mentioned 93 times, “foes” 40 times, and “the wicked” 104 times. Interestingly, the enemy is one of the central topics — or targets — of this book of prayers. David meditates on his enemies seemingly all the time when he talks to God.

But what really strikes me is the content of these prayers. David never prays for his enemies to be changed or healed. That’s not on his mind or in his desires. He also never prays for them to be forgiven or to experience mercy, despite David himself famously confessing his own failures and begging God for mercy (see Psalm 51).

Instead, David declares to God his hatred for his enemies (31:6) and his desire for them not to be saved (69:27). Even Psalm 139, which so beautifully celebrates the design of God’s creation and the sacred value of human life, confesses hatred for infidels and labels them “enemies” (139:21-22).

More extreme, David prays for his enemies to be mercilessly destroyed (54:5). In fact, his prayer includes fantasies about bathing his feet in their blood (58:10; 68:23) and requests for their children to suffer: “May my enemy’s children be wandering beggars, may they be driven from their ruined homes” (109:9-15). He prays a blessing over the person who seizes his enemies’ babies and “dashes them against the rocks” (137:9). Indeed, David prays for genocide, for entire peoples to be totally wiped away (21:9-10; 37:28; 106:34; 109:14).

The Psalm’s prayers about enemies are soaked in resentment and a desire for revenge. Their raw emotional honesty is impressive. But they reveal an inner, spiritual life that is festering with premeditated violence.

Prayer Is Premeditation for Practice 

The word “premeditation” is typically used in a court context. For example, a judge may refer to “a premeditated act of murder.”

The idea is that the perpetrator didn’t act spontaneously or without prior consideration. Instead, they had been thinking about, imagining, and perhaps even preparing for — premeditating — the act.

From this perspective, many of the Psalms can be described as premeditations of violence. In these prayers, we read the uncensored transcript of what the person praying has been thinking about, desiring, and perhaps even planning.

As we know, outside his prayer room, David was brutally violent against his enemies. For example, the Bible tells us, “Whenever David attacked an area, he didn’t leave a man or woman alive” (1 Samuel 27:9; see 2 Samuel 8:2). In fact, David’s final words were a demand for his enemy Shimei to be murdered (1 Kings 2:9).

When we think of prayer as premeditation, this prayer/practice alignment actually makes sense. Imagine how much easier it would be to insult someone after praying that God would humiliate them.

Or perhaps you’ve been asking God to make them suffer. After that prayer, imagine how much easier it would be for you to harm them, whether by refusing to help them, or by planting a seed of gossip against them, or by actively contributing to their ruin.

Or perhaps you’ve been praying for your enemies to be genocidally exterminated. After praying for them to be wiped out, imagine how much easier it would be to cooperate when your group calls you to kill your neighbors or simply to reveal where they’re hiding.

Prayer is premeditation. It reveals what we care about and hope for. It carves out new space in our spirit for action. Is it any surprise that preachers ask us to “pray for the offering” and then invite us to give immediately after we say amen? For better or worse, we are often the answers to our own prayers.

Of course, this is precisely what we saw in Rwanda before the genocide in 1994: increasingly hateful, violent prayers and sermons.

(Global leaders and and peace professionals should be extremely interested in prayer. I’ve never seen an “early warning” system that examines the content of people’s prayers. But in religious societies, prayers and sermons can be revealing indicators of emerging conflict.)

Jesus’s New Prayer for Enemies

Now, we know that Jesus’s imagination was soaked in the Psalms. But in a shocking break from the the culture of the Psalms, Jesus demands a totally new practice of prayer. Our prayer about enemies should be premeditation for peace.

Jesus directly addresses the issue of praying about our enemies more than once, and Jesus says the same thing again and again:

“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.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-28, 35-36)

Notice that Jesus teaches us to pray for not against — our enemies and immediately clarifies what he means with language of “loving,” “blessing,” “doing good,” and “being merciful.” These caring attitudes and actions orient us around the other’s healing and wellbeing, not their destruction. They soak our souls in new possibilities for peacemaking. If fact, they shift our vision from seeing the other as an “enemy” at all to seeing them as a precious child of God who can change.

Of course, Jesus is not saying that we should pray for injustice itself to succeed. Jesus cherished and exalted justice (Matthew 23:23). But Jesus is certainly saying that we should desire for our “enemies” to be blessed, shown mercy, treated with care, and healed from their hatred. When we pray, we should ask God for this healing and proclaim this over them, which points to Jesus’s healing vision of justice.

Similarly, Jesus repeatedly teaches that God won’t forgive our sins unless we forgive others when they sin against us. I can’t beg God to have mercy on me and then beg God to crush the people who have wronged me (Matthew 6:12, 14-15; 18:35).

For Jesus, then, prayer has at its heart the practice of blessing enemies and asking God to forgive them. Prayer is the premeditation of peace.

Practice: Sticking the Landing 

Now, fast forward to the most devastating moment in Jesus’s life. He gets wrongfully arrested, sentenced to death in a bogus mob trial, and tortured and humiliated. At last, he’s stripped naked and hammered to a cross to die in public agony.

How does Jesus respond to this horrific injustice?

Jesus cries out for everyone to hear, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). Jesus asks God to forgive his murderers while they’re murdering him. Even nonreligious thinkers like Hannah Arendt have commented on how this is one of the most astonishing moments in world history.

How did Jesus do that?

Based on what we’ve seen above, Jesus didn’t have a burst of spiritual inspiration. Jesus was preparing for this moment his entire adult life. In other words, Jesus’s history-making, world-saving act of radical forgiveness was premeditated in his daily practice of prayer. Jesus’s teaching and personal practice of prayer were full of counter-cultural blessings for enemies — what I would call a creative counter-insurgency of healing.

So when the time came — when murderous violence exploded — Jesus wasn’t caught unprepared. Jesus had been premeditating peace his entire life, because he had been praying for his enemies day after day. And so when Jesus got brutally crushed, what was inside came out, and we face a shockingly beautiful revelation: forgiveness was festering inside of Jesus.

To use an analogy from gymnastics, Jesus was able to “stick” a seemingly impossible landing because he was training for it every day. He knew the moves and premeditated in prayer.

Practice: The Past Is Present 

One of the most profound and sobering realities of the human condition is that our present is often a rerun of our past.

When we see an Olympic gymnast run as fast as they can, hurl themselves off of a beam, and twirl through the air — only to land on their feet with their chin up and their hands held high — it looks like they’ve performed a miracle. In a sense, they have, because 99% of us can’t do that and can hardly imagine trying. (This 2-minute video shows stunning examples of “sticking the landing.”)

But in a deeper sense, that gymnast is simply doing what they’ve done a thousand times before — offstage, during practice, in the past. Of course, that doesn’t make their “sticking the landing” any less extraordinary. But it shows how their accomplishment is really the work of countless, unseen acts of trying, failing, and trying again without giving up.

The same is true of an act of genocide. This violence doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of us and our premeditations.

The same is also true of an act of forgiveness and a seemingly impossible shift to reconciliation in a polarized society.

Prayer is premeditation. What we do in prayer prepares us for what we’re able to do in the real world. If we’ve been praying for our enemies to suffer, it’s no surprise that Christians have been able to participate in massacres and genocides. Rwanda was nearly 90% “Christian” in 1994 when around 800,000 people were slaughtered.

But if we’ve been praying blessings over our enemies, it’s no surprise that other Christians have been able to forgive and foster peace when everything says this should be impossible.  The film “As We Forgive” powerfully documents how this happened in Rwanda after the genocide.

Implications: Praying Between Conflict and Peace 

This takes me back to my opening questions. How do you pray about your enemies? And how are you preparing for conflict or peace in your society?

In a profound sense, these questions are the same, because prayer is premeditation. Are you premeditating resentment, revenge, and violence like the Psalms? Or are you premeditating forgiveness, blessing, and peace with Jesus?

I have a dream for prayer. I dream of every prayer group and church — in Ethiopia, in America, and across the world — becoming a healing gym where people practice praying for their enemies — blessing them, forgiving their sins, visualizing their good, and premeditating peace and reconciliation.

Imagine followers of Jesus becoming Olympic peacemakers in their society through daily prayer. Imagine how much more feasible crossing boundaries, showing kindness, forgiving, and reconciling with enemies would be after repeatedly praying God’s blessing over them.

These prayerful communities would organically form a cultural network of peacemaking, healing, and hope. Devastating events, which should lead to a flood of hatred and violence, could be transformed into places of forgiveness and new beginnings like Jesus’s cross. Prayerfully premeditating citizens wouldn’t be caught unready. They would be the first responders who cry out,

We’ve been preparing for this. Let’s unleash forgiveness. It’s time to practice our prayer for peace and do good to our enemies.”

Jesus presents us with a stark choice: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ [Psalms]. But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven’” (Matthew 5:43-45). For Jesus, peacemaking prayer is a matter of God’s character and our salvation. He doesn’t give us the option of praying to God while speaking hate against others.

Today, Christians can be peacemakers or conflict-makers in societies with high potential for mass violence. The difference is profoundly rooted in the premeditation of our prayers.

Are we praying hate, revenge, and violence? Or are we praying love, forgiveness, and peace?

Our answer to this question could mean the difference between genocide and societal healing.

Would you pause today, make a list of the people you’re tempted to hate, and join me in praying for them? If you’re a prayer group leader or pastor, would you make prayer for enemies — blessing, forgiveness, and healing — a regular part of the prayers you lead in your community?

Let us follow Jesus and premeditate peace each time we pray. Initially, this may feel impossible — like leaping off a beam, twirling through the air, and landing on our feet. But with daily practice and God’s Spirit, what feels impossible becomes possible.

***

“Because I am to ‘pray for all people,’ I therefore cannot despise or hate any person; otherwise my prayer is a lie.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1938 (15:328)

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