In the Presence of My Enemy

How prayer sets the table for reconciliation

We sat in a restaurant, not gossiping. Not griping. Not hating. Instead, the stern white man seated across from me—this man at work who used to bully me, who daily said bad things about me, not loud but loud enough so I could hear every sarcastic and unkind word—joined me now at lunch. Then we talked about life.

That’s how it starts. Two people finally break through.

We both had teenaged children, so we fretted about them. We both have spouses, so we reflected on them. We both knew disappointment, so we confessed about that.

This man at work who used to bully me, who daily said bad things about me, joined me now at lunch.

Then finishing our meal, we toasted to our friendship and got back to work. Lunch time over.

And this real moment almost didn’t happen. I was a newspaper reporter back then—scrappy, ambitious, and far too driven for my own good. He was my coworker, even scrappier, more ambitious, and far more driven than even me. We should’ve been fast friends from the start.

But this is America. Thus, we both grew up hating by color. He in the South. Me out West. Geography didn’t matter. In America, people learned early how to hate across the color line. For my friend, it meant learning the N-word and choosing to use it often.

For me, it meant hearing a school teacher call me “Nobody”—and seeing she believed it.

The signs agreed, saying I couldn’t use the bathroom. I couldn’t drink the water. I couldn’t eat in the restaurant. I couldn’t ride on the train car. I couldn’t enter the park. I couldn’t watch the movie on the main floor. So I took my popcorn and cold drink upstairs to the rundown balcony, never questioning my Southern relatives about the oddity of so many put-downs.

Instead, I sat upstairs in the movie house, cheering the cowboys, never understanding, as writer James Baldwin said, “that the Indians are you.”

Pretty crazy, the race problem in America. Especially if you don’t know God.

But God.

Remember those two words? How they girded rain-soaked Noah (Gen. 8:1), encouraged life-stressed Jacob (Gen. 31:42 NIV), emboldened sibling-challenged Joseph (Gen. 50:20). Standing before his starving, cheating, double-dealing brothers, Joseph invoked the two most grace-soaked words of the Bible: “You meant evil against me, but God …” (italics mine).

I couldn’t use the bathroom. I couldn’t drink the water. I couldn’t eat in the restaurant.

The apostle Paul, writing to that argumentative young church in Rome, summarized it this way: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). For all of us.

Of course, back then most of us went to church—worshipping in our segregated glory—and many pastors even preached that division was God’s way. Somehow they ignored that every nation, tribe, people, and tongue would stand together before the throne and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9), but we’d also stand alone to each face our judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10).

For certain, I aimed to hear “well done.” My friend did, too, going to church his whole young life, same as I. Yet both of us were guilty of listening not to God but man. For my part, sour and angry—weary of the insults, even from a coworker—I failed to heed the Bible’s call to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 ESV).

But forgiveness? I never considered it. At all.

In America, indeed, where the number of African Americans is still painfully small—still just 13 percent of the population—bearing, as a child, the burden of a nation’s hate while not heeding God’s solutions, was heavier than my soul could bear. As a white friend said recently to me, “I’m sorry this happened.”

“I am, too!” I replied, agreeing how damaging the “race problem” has been, especially in America.

Baldwin, again, speaking about a notorious Southern sheriff known in his day for brutalizing black protesters, was able to conclude the man wasn’t a monster. “I am sure he loves his wife and children ... But he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”


But God?

When we finally heed Him, He invites us to step back from our self-sufficient solutions—in my case, “acting” friendly and professional at work, struggling to nullify my coworker’s racist ridicule. Yet God wants more: our love. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

Now here was my “neighbor,” sitting at a desk nearby, breaking my heart. And God said to love him? Our sacrificing Lord, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, said it this way: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44).

These are exquisitely beautiful Jesus words, but they sounded like Greek to me. Literally. Love my enemy? I didn’t know how to love myself. The world’s hate poisons love. So love was foreign territory. An elixir mixed up for Hollywood movies or Top 40 songs. I could appreciate theologian Howard Thurman’s gorgeous explanation that “love loves; this is its nature.”

My wounds, however, responded then to the agnostic—to authors like Neil Gaiman, whose graphic novel for teens, The Kindly Ones, asks: “Have you ever been in love? Horrible, isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.”

But God.

Love opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.

After long days at work, as I curled up on my bed at home, pondering my coworker’s hatred, God’s mercy reminded me to hear my childhood Sunday school teacher—a sweet-faced woman who taught us that God is love.

Seated with us at little tables, next to the felt board with a cut-out Jesus, she encouraged us, as black children, not to repay hate with hate. If that feels hard, she said, pray about it. She pointed to cut-out Jesus, kneeling in Gethsemane. His unreliable friends, snoring away, slept through His agony, but how did He cope? He prayed, our teacher said. Prayed with total abandon. Take this cup! Then as my friend, the author Elisa Morgan, observes, He surrendered to the hard flip side of this prayer coin: Not My will.

Recalling this, I finally yielded: I will pray for this white man. Yes, for this enemy.

Praying for your enemy, and doing good for an enemy, said my sweet teacher, would “heap burning coals on his head” (Prov. 25:22). These coals, however, don’t burn your enemy, she said. They melt your enemy’s heart. Soften him up. Then the enemy will regard you with favor.

Of course, that’s what happened.

God’s way never fails.

Coals don’t burn your enemy, she said. They melt your enemy’s heart. Soften him up.

Leaving work one day, I whispered, “Help him, Jesus.” But even more, Help me.

“Oh, God,” I prayed, “help me greet him with a smile in the morning and send him off with a farewell at night. Bless his ‘going out and his coming in.’ Favor his teenaged son, his overworked wife, his writing, and his worries.” I prayed for his health, his hopes, and against his hindrances. I prayed that his days would go smoothly and his nights would have peace.

I even prayed—why not?—for his marriage, his vacation, his finances. That his bank account would balance, his bills would get paid, his car would keep running, and his feet would keep walking. That God would open up the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing.

In my black church as a child, I heard grownups pray like this and heaven opened. Hurting people got healed and helped, blessed, and encouraged. Praying with forgiving abandon moved mountains. Heaven, too.

Following their example, I tried to pray likewise: “Melt his heart.” Then I turned up the heat. “But also mine.”

Then one ordinary day, the man looked toward my desk. Seated in his chair, he rolled over to mine. Sat there a moment. I waited.

“Why haven’t we gotten along?” he asked.

I took in a breath. “I don’t know,” I said. I was breathing gently. Hearing his melted heart. Feeling my own. Matching him breath to breath.

“Why haven’t we gotten along?” he asked.

“It’s been a hard winter,” he said.

I nodded, agreeing.

He hated this job, he said. Hated the assignments he was getting. We talked a long time. Talked more every day afterward.

His teenaged son was a challenge. But he loved him. His wife got mad at him. But he loved her, too.

We laughed. Chuckled about our spouses. Gossiped once about our boss. Not a lot of talking. But it was civil now. And reasonable. Call it forgiving.

But God.

Making room for Him changes everything—what we hold on to, whether our pain or His good way. Taking His hand reminds us what we can’t accomplish without Him. Said evangelist Charles Spurgeon, “I do not believe you can hate a man for whom you habitually pray. If you dislike any brother Christian, pray for him doubly, not only for his sake, but for your own, that you may be cured of prejudice and saved from all unkind feeling.”

And then?

God is the author of forgiving love and the miracle of forgiveness. In Him, we reconcile.

You can find yourselves in a restaurant, across the street from your office. You can order a meal and a soda together. Even share a slice of pie. It’s flaky and sweet. A humble love offering. Then you can forgive each other, and even your country, because you did the right thing—obey God.

He is the author of forgiving love and the miracle of forgiveness. In Him, we reconcile. Without hard effort. And peaceably, passing all understanding.

When the man moved back East and I moved on to another job, we sent one letter each—wishing each other well. And once after that, years later, he wrote a long letter and signed it “My best regards …”

I read that letter and concluded only one thing. God is a mighty God, if only we will follow.

This time, we did. Both of us. The road to healing is long, built heart by heart, prayer by prayer, one by one. But when we step onto it, God lifts the burden, carrying us forward. Then we fly high.


Photograph by The Voorhes

Related Topics:  Prayer

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8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;

10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

14 Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.

43 You have heard that it was said, `YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.'

44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

1 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided.

42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had not been for me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, so He rendered judgment last night."

20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.

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