There is a great story told by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his book, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Ivan’s every day was filled with the horror of a Soviet prison camp. On this day, a prisoner in the camp finds Ivan deep in prayer. The prisoner laughs and says, “Prayers won’t help you get out of here any faster.” Ivan opens his eyes and says words born from extraordinary worship: “I do not pray to get out of prison but to do the will of God.”
So often, we find ourselves trapped in the prison that others have built with the bricks and mortar of wounding words, unfaithfulness, hateful actions, or evil intentions. Their sins against us create a vortex in our soul that sucks up our peace, hope, and joy. Yet, God doesn’t want us to remain locked in this cage, but to live in the freedom that forgiveness delivers.
In the last hours of His life, Jesus cries out to His Father in prayer. While He is being killed by cruel hands, the first words of Jesus are: “Forgive them!”
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.” (Luke 23:34, ESV)
Even while He was pierced for our transgression, Jesus asked God to forgive His enemies. Even as He was being killed, Jesus desired a transformation in the hearts and minds of those who were killing Him. As Jesus prayed, He opens for us the glorious hope of God’s forgiving love, even in the midst of our cruelest crookedness. As Jesus prayed, He opens for us the hard truth that we who have been forgiven must pray for the forgiveness of others, even those who act in cruel crookedness toward us.
1. Prayer gives us a heart of forgiveness like Jesus.
Jesus was more concerned about the mercy shown to sinners than He was the pain He was experiencing. He interceded for the forgiveness of those who were killing Him. What an amazing love! Jesus was always more concerned about others, living and dying for their rescue, even those who were inflicting the horrors of torture upon Him. He prayed for them to taste God’s mercy in forgiveness. Oh, what a Savior!
The longer we live in the lap of the Father and His love through prayer, the more we are immersed in His heart of love. The more we are immersed in the Father’s heart, the more we will want to bless others as His heart longs to bless others. We begin to have the heart of Jesus and care more about God’s mercy for those hurting us than the pain we are experiencing.
2. Prayer moves us from learning to living.
Jesus was modeling what He had taught (Luke 6:27-28). He not only taught God’s will but was also obedient to it. Here is the spirit that should reign in us, the prayer that must flow from our heart. As sons and daughters of God, we must pray for the forgiveness of those who hurt, beat, berate, and kill us.
The longer we live in the lap of the Father and His love through prayer, the more we will live the life of Jesus that we have learned. Asking God to forgive the ones who are wounding us moves us out of merely “hearing” God’s will to “doing” God’s will.
3. Prayer moves us from cursing to blessing.
When someone harms us, it is our natural response to withhold any good thing we possibly can. Yet like Jesus we must seek ways to give good in response for evil. When someone curses us, our natural response is to curse them in return. But Jesus teaches us to bless them with a prayer for their forgiveness.
Jesus calls us to bless the very people who hurt us. It is more than seeking to refrain from hurting them with our words. It is to search out ways to bring God’s favor into their lives. It is in this context a call to return a curse with a gift that would edify the individual and point them to God, like Stephen did for those who were killing him (Acts 7:60).
The longer we live in the lap of the Father and His love through prayer, the more we see His good purpose in the pain that others inflict by their sins against us. As we see God’s purpose in our pain, the more our hearts can become tender to bless those who hurt us.
Stop. Take a breath. And pray:
“Father, forgive those who have sinned against me.”