Imprecatory Prayer

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Justin Taylor had some great posts not too long ago on imprecatory prayer (i.e. praying against someone). I was particularly impressed by Crying for Justice. The main difficulty is that these prayers occur throughout the psalms (and elsewhere in the Bible), and yet they seem to offend modern moral sensibilities. Justin gives three approaches people have taken that minimize the role of imprecatory prayers in the Bible and why those views are misguided:
1. Imprecatory psalms express evil emotions that should be suppressed or confessed as sin (C. S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann).

2. They are utterances consonant with old covenant morality but inconsistent with new covenant ethics (Roy Zuck, J. Carl Laney, Meredith Kline).

3. Such words may be appropriately spoken only by Christ in relation to his work on the cross and only by his followers through him (James Adams, Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Justin gives a brief but good account of why all three views are unsatisfactory and offers a better approach that takes these psalms as legitimate prayers in certain contexts, even if such contexts are more rare in contemporary North American life. I won't repeat his reasoning, but I think he's right.

I think it's worth thinking through the possibility that love and hate are simultaneously possible and in fact even good in certain contexts. We assume that love and hate are opposites, and thus love for enemies requires not hating anyone. But there are clear biblical statements of hate for people, which Justin in an earlier post explains and defends in the context of loving enemies. Augustine's way of thinking through this issue has seemed to me to be the best way to work together these two seemingly contradictory themes. Love is our obligation, always, to any human being, whether we see the person as an enemy or not. With respect to the gospel, no one is our enemy. Everyone is a person in need of repentance. At the same time, we ought to hate evil, and people can be pretty evil. Everyone is evil in some significant ways, and we ought to hate what is evil in people.

This isn't just hating actions that are bad, since actions aren't all that makes us bad. Evil is within us, worked into the very fiber of our moral thinking, our character, our hearts and minds. We ought to hate that in anyone, and that does mean hating individual people with respect to the things in them that are evil. But what is redeemable, what will still be there if the person is transformed by God's grace, is always lovable, is always worthy of love. We aren't worthy in ourselves, without God, of any love, but what remains of God's original work (and something must, or regeneration would actually produce a new person, with the original ceasing to exist) is good. What God will do in transforming someone's mind and heart is good, and that is worth seeing as deserving of love. This is so even with the worst persecutors of Christians. Consider the example of the worst of such persecutors in ancient times, Saul of Tarsus, who was so transformed.

It really isn't easy to think through these issues, and it's nice to see someone evenhandedly taking the various threads in scripture all seriously. We are commanded to love our enemies. We also see examples of godly prayers against enemies, even ones indicating hate for them. Even though as great a thinker as Augustine said all that I think needed to say about reconciling these two things, most people won't go that way. They distance themselves from any notion that it's right to be concerned about God's justice to the point of asking God for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven with respect to evildoers. God's mercy and justice are both emphasized in his revelation of his name to Moses in Exodus after the golden calf incident. If we want to be shaped in a way consistent with God's heart, shouldn't we also see the importance of both and ask God to manifest both?

I really like Martin Luther's way of putting these together (also found at Justin's blog):

We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends and, if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ.

After 9/11, it occurred to me that the first thing Christians should do is to pray for Usama bin Laden's salvation, that God's mercy and grace would be manifested in him, which would mean God's justice would not be satisfied in him but in Christ. Failing that, it is only just for bin Laden to be brought to God's ultimate justice in the end, whether he receives justice in this life or not, and praying for that (conditional upon his not obtaining God's mercy in Christ) may well be the duty of Christians who are committed to seeing justice done. But the priority for us is to pray for his salvation, for we do not know whether he will repent and trust in Christ for salvation (and this is a real possibility, since people just as evil have done so, and no one is beyond God's grace).

On the other hand, now that I've said that, I need to distance myself from this sort of thing. Imprecatory prayers against political opponents makes no sense, but it's not because it's bad to ask God to deal with evildoers justly. It's not even because it's bad to pray for a political candidate to do well if you're convinced that candidate is in the right and ought to be elected (even though that implies that other candidates will lose, which amounts to praying against their success). It's because this particular enemy was suing because of a separation of church and state issue that really does seem to be a violation of the law as it stands. He endorsed a candidate on a church letterhead, even if he explicitly said he was supporting the person as an individual and not as a representative of the church. If it's on a church letterhead, there's reason to think he violated the law. When someone pursues having the church's tax-exempt status because the church didn't abide by the laws governing political behavior by tax-exempt organizations, it doesn't do to ask people to pray imprecatory prayers against your enemies who simply seek to have the law carried out properly. It's like murdering someone and then asking people to pray imprecatory prayers against the lawyers who are seeking to have you put in prison for committing the murder that you gladly admit you did and proudly say needed to be committed. If you get caught out in immorality, it simply doesn't do to seek to have people pray imprecatory prayers against those who are simply seeking justice.

So there's a need to tread lightly. Imprecatory prayer is like the righteous anger that should give rise to it. In many cases what we take to be good motivations for imprecatory prayer will turn out not to be righteous anger. We may be upset over something that turns out not to come from just concerns. We might be wrongly attributing evil motives to someone simply pursuing justice. We may have selfish or otherwise impure motives mixed in with just ones. In none of these cases will vengeance be appropriate, and therefore in none of these cases will imprecatory prayer be morally pure. I would suggest that, as righteous anger can be morally pure only in very rare cases, so too can imprecatory prayer be morally pure only in very rare cases. The burden of proof lies with those who are allowing anger to reign and thus willing to pray against someone. It's an area where spiritual and moral discernment is necessary for judging your own heart.

4 Comments

Sharing your thought process on this area is helpful.

I agree, John Day's book, Crying for Justice, is excellent.

Haven't parsed out the texts, but my understanding is that imprecatory psalms express faith in God's justice during a period when there was a strong belief that deserts were fulfilled in life; that is, if you have some karma, you get what you deserve before you die. Imprecations calling on God to dispense justice, then, are expressions of faith in the certain justice of God. It's not as much hatred of enemies as it is looking to the judge of those enemies and trusting that he'll make good on justice.

2 cents.

But it does express hatred for enemies, in so many words. Key example (in a favorite psalm of many Christians, almost all of which they're happy to appropriate in our day):

Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies. [Psalm 139:21-22, TNIV]

Comment in passing: I think that imprecatory prayers asking for justice make sense when the person in question is clearly an enemy of God or the Gospel. Perhaps he or she has published books openly maligning God and such. We should be zealous for God's name and pray for justice when we see someone attacking God in public.

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