“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” — Matt 5:44-45
Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us seems straightforward when we read it. He calls us to imitate God the Father who loves all of his creation, even in the midst of sinful behavior. However, our resolve to be like God in this way typically lasts about as long as it takes to get cut off in traffic or learn of the latest evil detailed in the evening news or online.
Not many of us bear affronts or unjust blame well. We may react with anger, resentment, gossip or uncharity. Loving our enemies is not an easy concept in practice, whether the favorite enemy lives in a foreign land or the room down the hall.
A good lesson in the art of loving our enemies is found in the Acts of the Apostles. St. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, who also became the first Christian martyr. Stephen had been “working great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Through false testimony, he was brought before the Sandhedrin. Stephen gave a commanding and cutting defense, detailing God’s hand in history and the treatment of the prophets by those who refused God’s word. Stephen’s reward for his witness was death. He was taken out of the city to be stoned.
Mentioned conspicuously in Stephen’s martyrdom account is St. Paul, then Saul, who was engaged in a deep persecution of the Church. St. Luke tells us that the witnesses against Stephen were laying their cloaks at Saul’s feet, and that he was consenting to Stephen’s death. One can imagine Stephen looking up into the face of Saul, peering into the eyes of the man who was overseeing his unjust death and the broader ravaging of the Church.
You need only visualize the brutality of very large, often jagged rocks colliding with Stephen’s restrained flesh to really understand the scene, the likes of which still occur to this day in some countries. Stephen would have been within his rights to cry loudly that he was unjustly condemned. We would have understood an account that included his foul language decrying his attackers in no uncertain terms.
Instead, in his final moments, Stephen first asks Jesus to receive his spirit, and then he prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60). Stephen would have known of Saul and could not have missed him in his place of honor that day. Stephen prayed, in essence, for God’s mercy to be extended that the sins his attackers committed that day would be wiped away. He prayed for the conversion of his persecutors, including Saul, at the very moment of his death.
From there, Jesus intervenes in a very personal way in the life of St. Paul, knocking him to the ground and blinding him, speaking directly to him, and setting him on a path to conversion. St. Paul eventually becomes the great Apostle to the Gentiles and a key figure in the growth of the early Church. God lifts up St. Stephen’s prayer to great effect, and gives us all a lesson about his desires for even the most hard-hearted of us.
St. Stephen’s prayer out of love for his persecutors is included in Acts for a reason. We are not meant to overlook it or the subsequent details concerning the only other person mentioned by name at Stephen’s martyrdom, St. Paul.
If God can turn the heart of one of the Church’s great persecutors, how can we doubt his ability to change the hearts of politicians, co-workers or even family members? Sometimes the “enemy” in our own family is the hardest to love, but we must! What use are grudges or anger when we can spend our time in prayer for those who may have hurt us or attacked our faith. Such incredible power is unleashed in the prayers for conversion for those who deny truth or have wronged others deeply. Do we really know whose prayers might be at the heart of fruitful changes we have made in our own lives?
While God’s timing and his hidden activity may never give us the “pay-off” moment of seeing a particular conversion of those for whom we pray – St. Stephen saw Paul’s conversion in heaven, no doubt – we have more than enough evidence that God will use our love and prayers to a great purpose. Our task is simply to pour them out without limit and let God put them to his use.
This column originally appeared in the August 2, 2013 edition of the Colorado Catholic Herald.