What happens when we pray for our enemies?
“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 5:43-45a
It was a picture-perfect evening in downtown Atlanta. I was headed to the city’s famous Fox Theatre to see Les Misérables, the Broadway musical based on Victor Hugo’s masterful novel, accompanied by a friend named Jason. Our conversation was full of laughter and friendly banter, even as we braced ourselves to take in a somber production that we knew would be filled with emotion.
“How did you two meet?” asked a fellow theater patron, a simple question that startled me. “Ummm… it’s a long story,” I awkwardly responded. “We’ve been friends for a while.”
What made this situation remarkable wasn’t the splendid weather—unusual for the season—or the fact that we had scored tickets to this sold-out production. It was that nearly thirteen years prior, we would have been considered enemies in every sense of the word.
Nearly thirteen years ago, a young man named Jason approached me at a public event—also in downtown Atlanta—visibly angry and perturbed. “Hey, my name is Ruth,” I said, unsure of why he had come up to me. “I know who you are,” he responded abruptly and indignantly. “If only you knew how hated you were in my community, you would fear for your life.”
Jason proceeded to tell me that he and many others in his circles of interaction vehemently disagreed with my beliefs and with actions I had taken in college—and, more significantly, that they held a different worldview. The more Jason talked, the more evident it was to me that he misunderstood not just my actions, but my motives as well. This encounter was not entirely unusual, sadly, but it did stand out as one of the more antagonistic. I remember feeling rattled and dejected. “This must be what it’s like to have enemies,” I thought to myself.
You see, thirteen years ago I was a college student studying at a public university, when I encountered tremendous opposition because my Christian beliefs were considered “intolerant” and “offensive” by some—not just students, but campus administrators and professors as well. From the day I stepped on campus for Freshman Orientation, I realized that I was entering an environment where atheism and secular humanism were not only being promoted by those in authority, but where Christians students like me were often prohibited from sharing our beliefs. While I expected to encounter scholarly debate and have my beliefs challenged in college, I didn’t expect to be repeatedly censored, interrogated, and condemned by those in authority for expressing a point of view not in lockstep with their own worldview. Such censorship hindered the free exchange of ideas on campus and prevented students from debating life’s deepest questions. After years of navigating that unlevel playing field as a Christian student, I felt compelled to speak out and seek justice.
I knew that the more vocal I became on campus, the more likely some would oppose my beliefs. But I never imagined that differences of viewpoint would lead to me being on the receiving end of vastly distorted media coverage, vicious hate mail, and even death threats. It baffled me to see leaders in higher education lash out at a student who expressed different beliefs as if I were a threat to their institution, and I was bewildered by the level of animosity from so many directions.
As a 22-year-old student, I remember the first time it occurred to me that I had enemies. I was no stranger to competition or different ideologies, but I had never experienced such vitriolic anger and rage. This was a foreign experience—one that initially left me frustrated, fearful, saddened, and confused. I wrestled with feelings of resentment and disdain toward these adversaries, grappled with the tension of whether and how to defend myself, and faced the temptation to retaliate when I was attacked. While I never wavered in my commitment to stand firm on principle, I did wonder how to respond to such extreme opposition from people who didn’t even know me personally.
In the midst of attempting to navigate these difficult dynamics, one day I was reading through the book of Matthew in the Bible and came to the Sermon on the Mount. This was a familiar passage to me, but the commands of Jesus resonated with me in a whole new light given my current circumstances.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I had read and heard these words dozens—maybe hundreds—of times. But this time it was different. Now I knew exactly how it felt to have enemies and to be maligned because of my beliefs—and I knew exactly what I needed to do in response.
“Thank you, Lord, that I have the privilege of carrying out this command in a deeply personal way,” I prayed. My perspective drastically shifted.
Up until this experience, I had thought of enemies in a generic sense—but now they had names. I soon wrote out an “enemies list.” For each day of the month, I listed the name of one individual who had attacked me through words and actions. When I got to #31, I went back to Day 1 and added more names. One of those names was Jason. Every day, I would pray for the designated individuals by name, that God would change their hearts and minds so they would understand and embrace the truth. The more I talked to God about them, my prayers became less focused on my personal situation and more fervent that these individuals would be drawn to the gospel message. I did this for about two years, and in this process, God changed my own heart and attitude.
Praying for my enemies replaced my anger and fear with lament and compassion. Instead of the natural tendency to “get even” or seek revenge, I began to earnestly desire their flourishing and hope for reconciliation. God transformed my resentment of them into love for them. Forgiveness was not optional for me; it was the only way to freedom and release.
I realized that I might never have the chance to interact with many of my antagonists, but by the act of my will and through the grace of God, I had to forgive them. Forgiveness enabled me to detach myself from their control, to develop empathy and gain insights on their spiritual needs, and to acknowledge that God is the only one who can bring about transformation in their lives and in mine.
Most of all, during this time I was vividly reminded of the forgiveness that I myself—once an enemy of God Himself—had received from God in Christ. If “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8b), who was I to withhold forgiveness from anyone—regardless of what they had done and whether they had apologized?
My pastor, Charles Stanley, continually encouraged me during this time and even asked our church to lift me up in prayer. His insights on forgiveness were both profound and practical. “Once we understand the depth of our sin and the distance it placed between God and us—and once we get a glimpse of the sacrifice He made to restore fellowship with us—we should not hesitate to forgive,” he explained. “We must release the offender from the debt we feel is owed to us. This involves mentally bundling all of our hostile feelings and surrendering them to Christ.”
This was a tumultuous season for me, but one that shaped my perspective and priorities as I learned valuable lessons that I hope will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Fast-forward about a decade.
I received a message online from Jason. He wanted to meet up. Though we had followed each other on social media, I had only seen him in person once—that hostile encounter over a decade earlier when he came up to me and told me how hated I was among his circles.
Jason said he wanted to trade updates on life and work. He told me he was a Christian, that he had struggled in his faith and wanted someone to talk to about it. The gentle tone of his message and the gracious words of affirmation left me stunned. “I just wanted to say thank you for enriching my life and challenging me so much over the years,” he wrote. “I am surrounded by people who think and believe just like me but they don’t enrich my life nearly as much as the people I have to leave my comfort zone and connect with to understand.”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. We set a time and place to meet, and I began praying for this encounter. On one level, I was excited and grateful for this opportunity. On another, I was apprehensive and unsure of what to expect. Memories from the antagonism I had experienced in college flooded my mind once again. With nervous anticipation, I showed up at the restaurant where we were meeting for dinner and waited for him to arrive.
As soon as we were both seated—before the server could even take our order—Jason started speaking. “I’ve been waiting for years to apologize to you,” he said, as tears filled his eyes. He told me about his faith journey, the personal challenges he had experienced, and how deeply he regretted his anger and hatred towards me a decade earlier.
I got emotional too, and in a sweet and unexpected twist, I attempted to comfort him. “We are all on a journey,” I assured him.
Jason continued to apologize profusely, and I finally interrupted him. “I already forgave you, over a decade ago,” I said. “But I, too, need to ask for your forgiveness.”
I apologized that I had sometimes viewed certain individuals as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved. I apologized that I had often spoken in a tone of outrage and frustration rather than one of regret and concern. In my zeal to share my own beliefs, I hadn’t adequately listened to the experiences of others—including his own. I went on to explain how my approach to advocacy and public engagement had shifted since I first met him all those years ago, shared some of the lessons I’d learned along the way, and described my current burdens for the state of our polarized culture with both lament and hope. “Meeting people such as you has been an essential part of my growth process, and I’m thankful,” I told him.
It was an authentic conversation that brought healing and hope to us both. “I remember my first instinct was to hate someone like you, and then I met you and learned how amazingly sweet and kind you were as well as how much we have in common,” Jason later wrote to me. “Who was I to hate someone I had never met? It changed everything.”
In that moment I was reminded in a compelling way that God is the great reconciler, bringing us into a right relationship with Himself and with each other. It’s truly miraculous and beautiful to witness.
The gift of forgiveness is to be both treasured and shared.
As I reflect on my experience in college, my encounter with Jason, and the ongoing challenge of forgiveness, I’m reminded of these lessons that I imagine will take a lifetime to learn:
Stand for truth and respond in grace.
Whenever we take a stand for what is right and good and true, there will be some who oppose our beliefs and actions, question our motives, and attempt to hinder our effectiveness. As Victor Hugo wrote, “You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea.” But having courage to stand for the truth is often only half the battle; we must also learn to handle attack in a godly way. Even as we resist the temptation to seek affirmation from the wrong sources, we must strive to be winsome in our approach toward all—at once clinging to the truth yet demonstrating grace and holding our expectations with an open hand.
Understand that forgiveness is always costly and never easy.
Forgiveness is always challenging and entails an element of suffering. Sometimes it is most difficult when we must choose to forgive unilaterally, without any prospect of the other person’s response. “Unilateral forgiveness occurs when you forgive someone and yet the person has not asked for it, requested it, or even repented of what they did to you,” explains Tony Evans. “Unilaterally means that on your own—without their involvement—you choose to grant them forgiveness.”Although it may be hard, the cost and consequences of unforgiveness are far too high.
Pray for your enemies and your heart will change towards them.
It is natural to fall into the mindset of seeing our opponents as obstacles, of dismissing those with different worldviews, and of focusing on our own hurts rather than recognizing the pain of others. When we pray for our enemies, God will change our perspective and enable us to see them as He does—precious people in need of a Savior. My former colleague, the late Nabeel Qureshi, would often admonish, “Before you talk to someone about God, talk to God about them.” When you talk to God about your enemies, He will often prepare you to talk to them about Him.
Pursue reconciliation and be persistent.
As believers, we must live in a continual rhythm of asking forgiveness in humility when we’ve wronged others and offering it freely when we ourselves have been wronged. As we pursue reconciliation intentionally, we must do so with an attitude of surrender, trusting that God is at work even when we can’t see the results. “Forgiveness is granted before it is felt. It is a promise to pray for the perpetrator as you remind yourself of God’s grace to you,” says Tim Keller. “Though it is extremely difficult and painful, forgiveness will deepen your character, free you to talk to and help the person, and lead to love and peace rather than bitterness.” We must not give in to discouragement or give up hope, however daunting the road ahead appears.
Next time you’re confronted with enemies, don’t despair. Resist the temptation to respond in anger. With humility, ask God what you can learn and where you can change. With gratitude, give thanks for the forgiveness you’ve experienced in Christ. With confidence, pray for your enemies—specifically, by name, day after day. In obedience, grant them forgiveness. And with anticipation, watch God change your heart towards others—and maybe even your enemy’s heart toward you.
Back to that memorable evening watching Les Misérables with my now friend, Jason. Themes of mercy, forgiveness, freedom, and redemption are evident throughout the acclaimed work, so in light of our journey it was poignant and fitting that we were watching it together.
The closing—and arguably most famous—line of the musical’s epilogue is “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
In one sense, this is right. Perhaps it is even an allusion to 1 John 4:12. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Every individual bears the image of God, so we see something of God’s face in another person. And to love is to act like God, so that will inevitably help us to see as He does as well. When we love one another, God’s love in us is perfected in us, and it’s almost as if we can see Him.
Yet in another sense, this line is vastly incomplete. The true image of God is Jesus Christ, and it is only in lovingly gazing at Him that we truly see the face of God—and only with the eyes of our heart for now. We will see Him face to face one day, but that is still to come.
So, with all due respect to Victor Hugo, perhaps we should reverse the logic of his famous line: we first need to see the face of God in Christ to truly love another person.
The only way to demonstrate and experience true forgiveness and love is to see how God has granted and revealed it to us in Jesus. Once we begin to grasp that, it will change the way we view the world and transform how we treat everyone God brings along our path.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” –Ephesians 4:32
Ruth Malhotra is Public Relations Manager at RZIM.
 Tony Evans, “Two Types of Forgiveness” (April 13, 2018), https://www.authenticmanhood.com/two-types-of-forgiveness/.
 Timothy J. Keller, “Serving Each Other through Forgiveness and Reconciliation.” (March 22, 2010), https://gospelinlife.com/downloads/serving-each-other-through-forgiveness-and-reconciliation/.
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