One of the most difficult things Jesus commands us to do is to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. Most recently, the "debate", if you can call it that, has been prayer for Usama bin Ladin, the madman behind the mass-murder that was September 11, 2001, among other acts of terrorism throughout the world.
Enemy? Indeed! Persecutor? Absolutely!
Love him? Uh....WHAT!?
PRAY for him? HUH!?
Right. Jesus doesn't flinch at our objections to this teaching, and He gave it with full knowledge of the horrible things humanity did and would do to each other. Yet, He, knowing human nature so perfectly, knew that the only way for us to grow in holiness, to be perfect like our Father in heaven is perfect, would be to cooperate with Grace in order for Grace to change us.
Let us explore a few terms used in this very short passage, so that perhaps we may better understand WHY Our Lord gives us such a difficult commandment.
He is not speaking here of gooshy puppy-eyed sappiness. He is speaking of the virtue of Divine Charity; the very love of God, the theological virtue we are given at Baptism, that is sealed at Confirmation. Divine Love is not the warped idea of "love" we humans have, but it is a supernatural gift from God to will the good of the other. To have it implies a connection with God that is stronger than our own will, choosing an active desire to conform ourselves to Him even though we may not know exactly what He wills for us...or for those for whom we pray. We don't merely love others with our own emotions, but with the fire of Divine Charity. It means we can look upon another who has deeply wounded us and still recognize that human being as a willed and beloved child of God.
We do know that it is God's will that all enter heaven, that not a single soul be lost. We therefore pray for others with this in mind, for ultimately, all prayer is about salvation: for us, and for others. Even if we, in our fallen humanity, do not will certain people to go to Heaven.
That's the crux of our human nature, isn't it? We are offended and we stop willing the good for another because we've decided, perhaps unconsciously or even subconsciously, that the one who offended us should just rot in hell.
Well...that isn't God's will, is it? Still, He, in His faithfulness to Himself and His creation, allows each and every one of us to choose, for Hell is not a place, but a state of eternal separation from God. God wills our eternal union with Him but He will not take back His gift of Free Will.
You have probably heard many prayers end with "in Jesus' name, Amen".
What does this mean? There are those who misunderstand and think that just the words "in Jesus Name", means that He absolutely endorses what we have just prayed about, and therefore, it must be true.
In fact, to pray in Jesus' Name means that we are praying with the intention to conform ourselves to HIS will...not to bend His will to match our own deformed will. We do not see as God sees, and often, we pray from a position of self-love, telling God what WE want, without giving thought as to what GOD wills for us.
Therefore, before we say, "In Jesus' Name, AMEN", we should be praying, "Not my will, but THINE be done!" In that way, we are reminded that we may be desiring something disordered, but we are still, in humility, bowing to God's almighty will, knowing He will bring about our good with our cooperation, even if that good contradicts something we think we really want.
When we are ordered to pray for our enemies and those who hate us, we are supposed to be praying for their good: their conversion, whether in this life or even when they stand before the Almighty in judgment. We also know that if a soul is not open to God, we desire that their hearts be opened in order to receive the grace we are asking for them.
And you know what? It's HARD to sincerely ask for someone we despise to be blessed with something so great as eternal salvation. It's HARD to sincerely ask for people we can't stand, or hate or want revenge against, to be blessed by God in some way.
It's dang near IMPOSSIBLE!
This is why, when we pray for our enemies, (or any prayer, for that matter), we step aside in humility by intending, "Thy will, not mine, be done", and praying also "In Jesus' Name", for in this way, we are recognizing that we can't forgive, we can't forget, we can't, in and of ourselves, carry that Divine Love we have received to another. It is Christ who forgives, who died for that enemy of ours, and it is Christ who died for us and allows us to struggle to be conformed to Him.
It's also about US. Prayer changes US by conforming us to God's will, and the more difficult the prayer, the greater struggle and the greater growth in holiness; if we will allow ourselves to be changed.
Prayer and forgiveness of enemies does not mean "forgetting", but rather, to simply allow God to bring about the good in that person's life (or death), and to purify us by removing hatred from our souls. It is one thing to be angry, it is another to allow that anger to so damage us that we turn into the object of our hatred.
Prayer prevents that. Prayer helps us to see with God's eyes and act with His Love. It conforms us to His will and makes us holy, as Our Father in heaven is Holy.
Always remember: it's never too late to pray for someone. We as humans are bound by time, but God is not, and He knows best how to apply all graces. Grace is never lost. If we are praying for someone we believe to be in Purgatory but they are actually already experiencing eternal beatitude, that Grace from our prayers will be passed to another in accordance with God's will. And yet, we grow in Divine Charity, Faith, and Hope simply through the act of praying for that other - especially if that other is an enemy who has deeply hurt us.
As Jesus said, it is easy to love those who love us. But loving those who hate us calls us to perfection.
Because I often explain things badly, I thought I would allow a Saint to speak, and so I leave you with the words of St. Jerome from his Commentary on Matthew:
"But I say to you: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you."
Many who measure God's commands according to their own feebleness, rather than by the strength of the saints, think the things that have been commanded here are impossible. They say that in view of our strength, it is sufficient not to hate one's enemies; but to be commanded to love them, well, this goes beyond what is experienced by human nature. It needs to be known, therefore, that Christ does not command impossibilities, but perfection. This is what David practiced with respect to Saul and Absalom. Stephen too, the martyr, prayed for his enemies who were stoning him. Moreover, Paul desires to be accursed on behalf of his own persecutors. And Jesus both taught and practiced this when he said: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."(p. 85)