Jeremiah 11.18-20; Psalm 54; James 3.13-4,7-8a;
+ Every morning for at least the last 15 years, I have, in my daily celebration of the liturgy of Morning Prayer, at the time of intercessions, prayed this petition.
“I pray for those who I view as my enemies, and for those who view me as their enemy.”
Behind this petition, I put an ellipses, three simple dots, at which point I pray for them by name. Now, I really don’t know who views me as their enemy, but over the years, I’ve had a few names of people I viewed as my enemies that I have included at that ellipses. A few names. Not many. And it takes a lot for me to view someone as my enemy. Just because someone doesn’t like me, or says unkind things about me behind my back or whatever, doesn’t make someone my enemy.
I have had people that I do view as enemies—people who wanted to do me some kind of harm in whatever form. One thing I have been unable to do is pray for bad things to happen to those people who I view as my enemy. Do I kind of secretly wish that bad things would happen to them? Maybe.
But more than anything, I just wish they would see the error of their ways, as I perceive it. Which may be wrong. But, yes, for one or two, maybe I did kind of wish bad things for them. You know, like a canker sore or a stubbed toe or something.
Enemies in the Bible were dealt with differently, as we no doubt have discovered. And often times, some harsh language was directed at those people who were considered enemies. On those occasions, we do sometimes come across language in the Bible that we might find a bit—how shall we say—uncomfortable. The language is often violent. It is not the language good Christian people normally use.
We get a peek at this language in our scriptures readings for today. Our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah is a bit harsh, shall we say?
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
so that his name will no longer be remembered.”
For many us, as we hear it, it might give us pause. This is not the kind of behavior we have been taught as followers of Jesus. After all, as followers of Jesus, we’re taught to love and love fully and completely. We certainly weren’t taught to pray for God to destroy our enemies. And not just destroy our enemies, but our enemy’s children (that whole reference to the fruit of the tree). We have been taught to pray for our enemies, not pray against them. None of us would ever even think of praying to God to destroy anyone.
But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually think and feel this way. Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly wish the worse for those people who have wronged us in whatever way. I like to think that, rather than this being completely negative or wrong, that we should, in fact, be honest about it.
We sometimes get angry at people. We sometimes don’t like people. And let’s truly be honest, there are sometimes when we might actually just hate people. It’s a fact of life—not one we want to readily admit to, but it is there.
Sometimes it is very, very hard to love our enemies. Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us.
So, what do we do in those moments when we can’t pray for our enemies—when we can’t forgive? Well, most of us just simply close up. We turn that anger inward. We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us. Especially those of us who come from good Scandinavian stock. We simply aren’t the kind of people who wail and complain about our anger or our losses. We aren’t ones usually who say, like Jeremiah, “let us cut [that person] off from the land of the living!”
I think we may tend to deny it. And I think we even avoid and deny where the cause of that anger comes from.
Certainly, St. James, in his letter this morning, tries to touch on this when talks about these violent “cravings” which are “at war within us.” It’s not pleasant to think that there is warfare within us. For me, as a somewhat reluctant pacifist sometimes, I do not like admitting that there is often warfare raging within me. But it is sometimes.
But what about that anger in our relationship to God? What about that anger when it comes to following Jesus?
Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger before God nor do we bring it before God. We, I think, look at our anger as something outside our following of Jesus. And that is where scriptures of this sort come in. It is in those moments when we don’t bring our anger and our frustration before God, that we need those verses like the ones we encounter in today’s readings.
When we look at those poets and writers who wrote these scriptures—when we recognize her or him as a Jew in a time of war or famine—we realize that for them, it was natural to bring everything before God. Everything. Not just the good stuff. Not just the nice stuff. But that bad stuff too. And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from these readings than anything else.
We all have a “shadow side,” shall we say. We all have a dark side. We have a war raging within us at times. And we need to remember that we cannot hide that “shadow side” of ourselves from God.
Let me tell you, if you have war raging inside you, you definitely cannot hide that from God. Sometimes this dark self, this war, is something no else has ever seen—not even our spouse or partner. Maybe it is a side of ourselves we might have not even acknowledged to ourselves. It is this part of ourselves that fosters anger and pride and lust. It is this side of ourselves that may be secretly violent or mean or unduly confrontational and gossipy.
Sometimes it will never make an appearance. It stays in the shadows and lingers there. But sometimes it actually does make itself known. Sometimes it comes plowing into our lives when we neither expect it nor want it.
As much we try to deny it or ignore it or hide it, the fact is; we can’t hide this dark side from God. It’s incredible really when you think about it: that God, who knows even that shadow side of us—that side of us we might not even fully know ourselves—God who knows us even that completely still loves us and is with us. Few of us lay that shadow self before the Light of God.
But the authors and poets of our scriptures this morning do, in fact bring it out before God. These poets wail and complain to God and lay bare that shadow side of him or herself. The poet is blatantly honest before God. Or as St. James advises,
“submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to you.”
When these ugly things crop up in our lives, bring them before God. Let us deal with them in humility before God.
The fact is: sometimes we do secretly wish bad things on our enemies. Sometimes we do wish God would render evil on those who are evil to us. Sometimes we do hope that God will completely wipe away those people who hurt us from our lives. It is in those moments, that it is all right to pray to God in such a way.
Because the fact is—as I hope we’ve all learned by now—just because we pray for it doesn’t mean God is going to grant it. God knows what to grant in prayer. And why. The important thing here is not what we are praying for. It is not important that in this Psalm we are praying for God to destroy our enemies. It is important that, even in our anger, even in our frustration and our pain, we have submitted to God.
We have come before God as this imperfect person. We have come to God with a long dark shadow trailing us.
I have heard people say that we shouldn’t read these difficult on Sunday morning because they are “bad theology” or “bad psychology.” They are neither. They are actually very good and honest theology and very good and honest psychology. Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it. Let it out before God. Be honest with God about these bad things. Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God. Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger if you have to. Trust me, God can take it.
But, these scriptures teach us as well that once we have done that—once we have opened ourselves completely to God—once we have revealed our shadows to the Light of God—then we must turn to God and turn away from that shadow self. We must, as St. James says, “resist the Devil.”
Hatred and anger and pain are things that, in the long run, hurt us and destroy us. At some point, as we all know, we must grow beyond whatever anger we might have. We must not get caught in that self-destructive cycle anger can cause. We must not allow those negative feelings to make us bitter.
So, when we are faced with these difficult scriptures and we come across those verses that might take by alarm, let us recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God Let these scriptures—these lamenting and angry, as well as the joyful, exultant—be our voice expressing itself before God. And in the echo of those words, let us hear God speaking to us in turn. When we do, we will find ourselves in conversation with God. And, in that conversation, we will find that, even despite that shadow side of ourselves, God accepts us fully and completely for who we are.