Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Prayer as Combat

Like many of you, I watch the news and grieve over the constant images of pain and destruction in places like Kyiv. I pray—but how should I pray? Tish Harrison Warren decided to ask readers how they are praying. In a recent New York Times article, “How Readers Around the World Are Praying for Ukraine,” she shared a prayer that a Ukrainian pastor’s wife prays. It has become part of my daily prayer regimen.


Behind the words of this prayer is a mix of grief, anger, and hope. My daily discipline of praying through the Old Testament Psalms have prepared me for this kind of praying.  Some of the psalms are songs of praise and others are prayers of lament. A few are more severe, what some refer to as imprecatory psalms. There are thirty-five such prayers, and each one serves to call down curses on the enemy. Some theologians, however, see the label as inappropriate. They are not so much a call to bring down afflictions as a cry to God for justice. They ask that God avenge the wrong that has been and is being done.


These are unsettling psalms, but they are essential to helping us express our feelings to God, especially in times of great evil. When we make these psalms our language of prayer, we are confronting wickedness. We are calling out evil and praying forcefully against it.

On Tuesday, my reading took me to Psalm 58, one of the imprecatory psalms. The graphic imagery catches me a bit off guard (“let them vanish like water…let their arrows be as headless shafts…and let them be like a slug melting away as it moves”). When I consider the evil we are facing, I find such a prayer particularly relevant; it quickens the pulse and shoots adrenalin into the bloodstream. This is how Peterson puts it in his chapter, “Enemies,” (Answering God). These are the kind of psalms that remind us that prayer is, among other things, combat.


The most startling of this kind of prayer is Psalm 137. Peterson refers to this petition as “a can of black spray paint defacing a memorial in white marble.” Who let this prayer in the Bible’s prayer book? Answer—God. Imprecatory psalms may not be palatable to our tastes, but if we choose only those parts of the Bible that we find to be pleasant, we are standing over Scripture rather than sitting under it in submission.


The point here is that there are times acts of violence and unspeakable injustice need to be prayed against with a hate that “arises in the context of holiness.” Though compassion must be central to our souls, abhorrence and revulsion have their place. If our emotions do not come close to full boil when we see people persist in resisting God and oppressing others—if we are not moved deep within when men and women are brutalized, and children starved—then something is terribly wrong with our souls. We may be afflicted with what some call acedia, a condition where one lacks any care. This is the person that knows nothing, interferes with nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for (Leithart).


While we may be uncomfortable with feelings of hate, it is often one of the first signs that we deeply care, that we live for something. We weep when others weep and abhor the injustice they abhor. Hate prayed, as Peterson puts it, “takes our lives to bedrock where the foundations of justice are being laid.” The following prayer, articulated by this minister’s wife, takes me to such a place–

“Father-God, may the attackers’ fingers freeze; may they drop things; may they not see clearly; may their equipment malfunction; may they experience overwhelming hopelessness, enormous fatigue and a complete loss of any desire to fight; may their communication be broken; may there be confusion. Lead them to surrender. Stretch the kilometers before them into endless kilometers of nonadvancement. Remove their leadership and replace them with people who make decisions that reflect a fear of you.

Oh, God, infuse defenders with incredible surges of renewed alertness, strength, hope, courage. Inspire those who want to help. Show them specific, effective ideas. Move them swiftly and safely.

The worst is yet to come, Lord, if you do not stop it. But please, no peace where there is no peace. We ask for peace united with righteousness and truth.

God of all comfort, be physically present with all the mothers, fathers, grandparents and children who are hiding, hearing, smelling, enduring. Warm them; fill them with food; give them water, toilets, communication with their loved ones, the Gospel, hope in you.

We repent of making idols of political leaders and news outlets. Forgive us for wanting them to be our gods and saviors. Forgive us for being unreasonable, for not wanting to admit both the good and bad in all of our leaders. It is this spirit that leads us to dictators because we abandon responsibility and reason. We confess the seeds of war that live in our own hearts.

We humble our hearts, our bodies. We ask you for mercy. Thank you that you love mercy and have all power.”  AMEN.



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