Evil is a reality in our world.
We may not always recognize it, but it is still a reality in our world. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the treatment of Christ’s followers in many places of our world.
The persecution of Christians in all of its forms is not a problem of history, though it is that, but is a problem of life in the 21st century. The most dangerous places for God’s people are often Muslim-dominated countries, communist-controlled countries and dictatorially-ruled countries. It is most often in these countries that Christians face threats—physical, emotional, familial, economic, relational.
When we read the scriptures, we find three realities about evil and God’s people. First, that God’s people are a continual target of evil. Many psalms relate the burden of God’s people being attacked by their enemies and their prayers to God for deliverance.
Second, even though it’s difficult to understand, it shouldn’t surprise us that God’s people are the target of evil. Ultimately, evil is the work of the evil one. The evil one exists for the sole purpose of destroying what God loves—creation, beauty, joy, peace, love and people, particularly people who have embraced God and his kingdom. The evil one’s intent is to do everything possible to crush, eliminate and destroy God’s people and to do so by every means possible, overtly and subtly. No wonder so many of the psalms are poetic expressions of God’s people crying out to God.
Psalm 83 is one example. Speaking of Israel’s enemies, the Psalmist cries out:
Do to them as you did to the Midianites
and as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the Kishon River.
They were destroyed at Endor,
and their decaying corpses fertilized the soil.
O my God, scatter them like tumbleweed,
like chaff before the wind!
As fire burns a forest
and as a flame sets mountains ablaze,
chase them with your fierce storm;
terrify them with your tempest.
Utterly disgrace them…Let them die in disgrace.
Third, Satan’s attack against God’s people is actually an attack against God himself. Once again, the psalms understand this truth (Psalm 83:1-3):
O God, do not be silent!
Do not be deaf.
Do not be quiet, O God.
Don’t you hear the uproar of your enemies?
Don’t you see that your arrogant enemies are rising up?
They devise crafty schemes against your people;
They conspire against your precious ones.
The pronouns are second person. The evil actions may be directed toward Israel but God is the real target. When the dust settles, the evil one is God’s enemies first and foremost. This doesn’t lessen the pain that evil inflicts on God’s people, but it does give us a foothold as to why evil is so intent on destroying and eliminating God’s people.
Nevertheless, the prayers of these psalms make us uncomfortable. We feel uneasy asking God to take down our enemies, to bring them to utter disgrace, to cause them to die in disgrace. It doesn’t sound very Christian. It doesn’t sound like Jesus.
In one sense, we are correct. It doesn’t sound like Jesus, particularly the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48).
Jesus seems to be saying, “Don’t think or speak or pray ill toward those who persecute you.” What if Jesus is actually saying, “Treat your enemies the way your Father in heaven does. Do what is most loving and kind to them. Respond to them in a way that looks very different from the way everyone else responds to their enemies.”
What if the psalms that speak against God’s enemies are actually an act of love as Jesus demands?
The alternative to praying for God to eliminate evil is to act as if evil doesn’t matter. If we can witness the destructive nature of evil and it doesn’t concern us, perhaps our biggest problem is not the evil but our hearts. In a world that has rejected God’s grace and therefore cut itself off from the fullness of life in him, if we can witness the evil one’s attempt to eliminate the presence and witness of God’s people and therefore eliminate the opportunity for a decaying world to see and hear the message of Jesus and not be bothered by it, our problem is us more than anything else.
Isn’t it love to do all that we can to expose and defeat the destructive intent of the evil one? Isn’t it love to pray and work for God to set innocent people free from the tentacles of the evil one whose only intent is destruction? Isn’t it love to ask God to defeat those who are attempting to prevent others from experiencing the joy and peace of Jesus? The words of Jesus are not a contradiction to these psalms but a fuller extension of them.
Sometimes Christians are so wrapped up in our own world of church and ministry that we disconnect ourselves from the rest of the world and the evil in it. We think that the ultimate life in Christ is a life that never needs to think about evil and its nefarious intent. We all gather in the castle, put up the drawbridge and trust that the moat and walls and our own defenses will hold us safe. But this is not the life God intends for his people. It’s certainly not the life of Christ. The church in Acts goes into the evil and the evil structures of her world and does so with confidence and joy. Things like racism and slavery concern them. Things like sexual perversion and human sacrifices concern them. Evil in our world ought to concern us too.
Like Israel, our world immersed in evil needs the witness of the church. Not because God can’t speak into the world anyway he desires, but because God has created a world in which the voice and presence of the church is his primary means of speaking into the evil in our world. We need to hear the call of Jesus to love the world that is in slavery to evil.
An act of love—to jar those engaged in evil from their destructive and self-destructive behavior. An act of love—to give solace to the people whose lives are being destroyed by the designs of the evil one and those who give allegiance to him. An act of love—to keep our hearts sensitive to the destructiveness of evil in our own hearts by choosing to focus on the truth and choosing to act in compassion rather than bitterness and vindictiveness.
It’s important to see the consequences of the world if we don’t pray this prayer. If we don’t pray this prayer, then we are declaring that we have no problem with evil spreading and with the consequences of evil destroying people. To not care enough to pray this prayer is to feel no concern that evil shreds lives and leaves a wake of broken people.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his adult life working against evil. He preached against the forces of evil. He acted against the forces of evil. He prayed against the forces of evil. His prayer and desire were to see God destroy his enemies—not out of a spirit of vindictiveness but out of a spirit of love for the world. I suspect that his prayers weren’t all that different from Asaph’s prayer in Psalm 83.
He had a vision of his work and prayer that would destroy his enemies not by ending their lives but by ending their opposition to God and his people. He saw that the ultimate act of God toward his enemies was to crush evil by turning those who were willing to Christ through love and witness. And he could commit to this way of life not because he was assured of his own power but because he was assured of God’s power. He was free to give his life away in the fight against evil because he remembered the words of Jesus that the gates of hell shall not prevail against my Church (Matthew 16:18).
Perhaps the greatest test of our faith as God’s people is to pray against evil and not become evil, to pray against those who persecute our brothers and sisters and not become a persecutor, to pray for God to crush our enemies and do so not because we hate them or because we are vindictive but because we want them to know the truth about God and experience abundant life in Jesus. We pray this prayer because we understand that God’s ultimate answer to evil is not a sword but a cross, not crushing his enemies but dying for his enemies, not force but vulnerable love.
In whatever situation we find ourselves, in whatever pain we feel because of the presence and destructiveness of evil against God’s people, perhaps we would do well to hear the prayer of missionary and professor, Ben Hegeman: “Lord, avenge the death of your servant by bringing the murderer to a saving knowledge of your Son.”