Simpering, superficial piety is often a stumbling block to true religion. So let’s cast it aside for the moment and talk about hate – not other people’s, but our own. And I don’t mean in a “hate is bad” sort of way. Let’s give it the respect it deserves.
I’ve had some terrible things done to me over the course of my life by people who will probably never apologize or take responsibility. As a result, I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with hatred. This is the point at which, if you’re a Christian like I am, you’ll feel obligated to talk about forgiveness. While it’s true that followers of Christ have an obligation to forgive those who have sinned against us, trying to forgive someone or something as if following a recipe in a cookbook is unhelpful for processing real and powerful feelings of hatred, especially if those feelings arise from the searing pain of terrible injustices. How does anyone simply forgive violation, degradation, the taking of life, and dehumanization?
What we need to do first is not to have a conversation about forgiveness but to have a re-wiring discussion about prayer. Why? Because most of us need to unlearn the pious boundaries we put around it and re-learn how to pray through the Psalms, God’s gift to us for expressing the full spectrum of the human experience. They fall under the part of Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). That one line sounds deceptively simple, but it encompasses our most epic battles with the evil that exists in the world and dwells in our hearts.
In his book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (1989), Eugene Peterson dedicates an entire chapter to the subject of enemies. He writes,
The Psalms are full of unsettling enemy talk. God is the primary subject in the Psalms, but enemies are established in solid second place. Why should this be?… Shouldn’t an overpowering sense of God’s presence, his power and salvation, shrink human difficulties into insignificance?… It is not unreasonable to suppose that the life of prayer will draw us into a genial camaraderie, so secure in God’s grace and confident in his beneficence that we are irresistibly carried along in the flow of the river of God, viewing everyone and everything with the cheeriest of feelings. But reason, at least reason inexperienced and untested in the life of prayer, isn’t the best guide in these matters. When we take the Psalms as our guide, we find that people who pray have a lot of enemies, and that they spend a lot of their praying time dealing with them.
Peterson then discusses Psalm 137, which he refers to as “The Scandal Psalm.” The context for the Psalm is Israel’s painful humiliation and exile, and the final stanza ends with a disturbingly graphic denunciation of enemies: “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (verses 8,9). Peterson continues (long excerpt because all of it is so important – emphases added):
This is raw hate… In edition after edition of prayer books, hymnbooks, and worship books that are based on the Psalms, we find this stanza excised. These psalmectomies are well intentioned, no doubt, but wrongheaded all the same.
They are wrongheaded because our hate needs to be prayed, not suppressed. Hate is our emotional link with the spirituality of evil. It is the volcanic eruption of outrage when the holiness of being, ours or another’s, has been violated. It is also the ugliest and most dangerous of our emotions, the hair trigger on a loaded gun. Embarrassed by the ugliness and fearful of the murderous, we commonly neither admit or pray our hate; we deny it and suppress it. But if is not admitted it can quickly and easily metamorphose into the evil that provokes it; and if it is not prayed we have lost an essential insight and energy in doing battle with evil.
Dishonesty in prayer is already rampant enough without an assist from bleeding heart editors. The Hebrew editors who selected the psalms for our praying were a tougher breed; they included the third stanza of Psalm 137 deliberately and with good reason: the life of prayer carries us into difficult country, a country in which we become aware that evil is far more extensive than anything we ever guessed, where malignity has worked itself perversely and deeply into the world’s ways…
We have been brought up, most of us, interpreting what is wrong in the world on a grid of moralism. Moralism trains us in making cool, detached judgments. Deep down, the moralist suspects that there are no, or at least not very many, real victims. People get what is coming to them. In the long run people reap what they sow. The rape victim, the unemployed, the emotionally ill, the prisoner, the refugee – if we were privy to all the details we would see that, in fact, ‘they asked for it.’
The Psalms will have none of this. The Psalms assume a moral structure to life, but their main work is not to train us in judgmental moralism but to grapple with evil. Their praying insights have identified an enemy and they respond in outrage. They hate what they see. On behalf of all the dispossessed, the mocked, the dehumanized of the earth they pour into the ears of God their sightings of the enemy, not ‘siphoning off hate, but channeling it in effective ways, in covenantal shapes.’
This hate arises in a context of holiness: meditating on the holy word of God, expecting the holy messiah of God. Before we prayed we would sit peacefully for two or three hours reading about suffering and cruelty as if we were reading about long-extinct dinosaurs, a knowledgeable but detached acquaintance. But immersed by prayer in this holiness, we see clearly what we never saw before, the utter and terrible sacrilege of enemies who violate a good creation, who brutalize women and men who are made, every one of them in the image of God. There is an enormous amount of suffering epidemic in the world because of evil people. The rape and pillage are so well concealed in polite language and courteous conventions that some people can go years without seeing it. And we ourselves did not see it. But now we see it. And we hate it. We are ejected from our cushioned private religion into solidarity with ‘the Silent Servants of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed up.’
Just as hurt is the usual human experience that brings us to our knees praying for help, provoking the realization that we need God, so hate is frequently the human experience that brings us to our feet praying for justice, catalyzing our concern for the terrible violations against life all around us. Hate is often the first sign we care… That does not mean that prayer legitimizes hate – it uses it. ‘Surely the wrath of men shall praise thee’ (Psalm 76:10). Neither is hurt good, but it wakes us to our need for help. Human hurt is not a very promising first step to the establishment of righteousness. Nevertheless, when prayed, they are steps, first steps, into the presence of God where we learn that he has ways of dealing with what we bring him that are both other and better than what we had in mind. But until we are in prayer, we are not teachable. It is better to pray badly than not to pray at all. A ship that is dead in the water can’t be steered…
We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be. In prayer, all is not sweetness and light. The way of prayer is not to cover our unlovely emotions so that they will appear respectable, but expose them so that they can be enlisted in the work of the kingdom. ‘It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.’ (quoting Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, p. 77)…
The last word on enemies is with Jesus, who captured the Psalms: ‘Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you.’ But loving enemies presupposes that we know that they are there, whether many or few, and have begun to identify them. Enemies, especially for those who live by faith, are a fact of life. If we don’t know we have them or who they are, we live in a dangerous naïveté, unguarded from the ‘pestilence that stalks in darkness’ and ‘the destruction that wastes at noonday,’ witless when we pray, ‘deliver us from evil.’
Our hate is used by God to bring the enemies of life and salvation to notice, and then involve us in active compassion for the victims. Once involved we find that while hate provides the necessary spark for ignition, it is the wrong fuel for the engines of judgment; only love is adequate to sustain these passions.
But we must not imagine that loving and praying for our enemies in love is a strategy that will turn them into good friends. Love is the last thing that our enemies want from us and often acts as a goad to redoubled fury. Love requires vulnerability, forgiveness, and response; the enemies want power and control and dominion. The enemies that Jesus loved and prayed for killed him.”
Perhaps one of the greatest errors we make in the modern era is that we tweet and post our hatreds before we have adequately prayed them. We openly rage against the hate in the hearts of those who have hurt us or done wrong in part because counterfeit religion has conditioned us against carrying our own hatred into the presence of the God first. He alone can transform and incorporate our hatred into his divine engine of justice. It is in prayer, not on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, that God applies the burning coal to our lips and commissions us for kingdom work in the world (Isaiah 6:5,6).
It’s important to notice that in the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness follows the muscular work of praying our hatreds and seeking divine provision. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” precedes “Give us this day our daily bread.” Only then are we ready to arrive at “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Pray your hatreds. You’ll find that God is waiting to receive them, that He takes them quite seriously.
Start with any one or all of these: Psalm 5, 10, 17, 35, 58. 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140.