Praying imprecation

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When I was younger, I used to listen to sermons on the local Christian radio station. Between the ages of 10 and 16, I received an unofficial theological education from the likes of Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, and others. I still listen to sermons regularly–especially Alistair Begg, whose ministry I resonate with deeply, but I listen on my phone.

While listening, I once heard Donald Grey Barnhouse pray something remarkable. At the time it shocked me–today I see great wisdom in it. He prayed for those who were running from God or in some fashion resisting him. Dr. Barnhouse asked God to make them so uncomfortable–or something along those lines–that they would turn to him and embrace Christ.

Praying for someone else’s discomfit seemed an alien and strange thing to me as a radio-listening adolescent. It shouldn’t have been, an entire section of the Psalms is dedicated to prayers and songs asking God to do just this to those who oppose him and his people. The imprecatory Psalms call down God’s justice, vengeance, and punishment on those who oppose him and his purposes in the world.

We live in a culture where we cannot imagine that something good can come from something difficult. We cannot imagine a God who would choose to make us hurt in order to bring us to himself. The Psalmist most definitely could.

Can we? Should we?

My answer: yes, cautiously. 

In the last year have prayed specifically against people, organizations, and other entities who have shown themselves to be enemies of God and of the Gospel–false teachers, false Christians, and false churches, for example. I pray against such things because they ruin peoples’ lives both in this life and in the next.

I don’t know of another time in my life when this has been true. As a rule, I don’t pray against things so much as toward God. Yet, there are times and contexts when it is evident that the truth is being twisted and compromised and that people are being manipulated and being led away from truth.  In such instances, I have no problem praying defensively: God defend your reputation, your people, your church. As I have prayed, I have asked God to stop them and to carry out justice.

I have tried to approach these prayers in a balanced way bearing in mind the wise counsel of William Ross:

First, we must recognize God’s sovereignty in acting out his own justice on evil. To be sure, until that judgment, Jesus commands us to love our enemies, to pray for them, even to bless them (Luke 6:27-28Rom. 12:201 Pet. 3:9). Jesus spoke more about love than bearing the sword (Matt. 10:34-35Luke 12:51-53). In similar fashion, Paul instructed Christians to “bless and do not curse” our persecutors (Rom. 12:14).

But this instruction does not prohibit calling evil what it is, and desiring that God deal with it promptly and specifically. We see this most clearly in Revelation 6:9-10 where the heavenly martyrs call out for justice and vengeance. Theirs is an intensely personal concern: they ask God to avenge “our blood upon those who dwell on earth.” It is important to note that while the heavenly martyrs are issuing a personalized imprecation, it is nevertheless divinely mediated. Their imprecation is qualified by the sovereignty and agency of God himself to answer their prayer.

Second, we must distinguish between cursing our personal enemies ourselves (Col. 3:8) and calling upon God to curse his enemies. This distinction is evident in Romans 12:14. While Paul instructs us not to curse others, he does not prohibit asking God to pour out his justice. The distinction is subtle but important. In the former we condemn men on our own terms and make ourselves gods; in the latter we beseech the King and recognize his holiness and our finitude.

In that sense, when making specific imprecation, we must always balance “Father, save the lost!” with “Father, pour out your wrath upon evil!” The contingency that holds together these two ideas properly submits to God’s sovereignty—his justice and mercy—without assuming that only one of the two options will bring him glory. Paul does not shy away from personal imprecation as he puts this principle to use in 1 Corinthians 16:22: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, then let him be accursed!” (cf. Gal. 1:8-9). As Christians redeemed by Christ, we can simultaneously recognize the forgiveness of our own sin and the fact that sin itself grounds our appeal for God’s judgment.