MANILA—Since I landed in the Philippines last week, the nation has been gripped with the ongoing crisis in the southern island of Mindanao. Islamic militants have taken the city of Marawi and declared allegiance to ISIS. Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced since the violence began on May 23.
Over the last few weeks, terror attacks have seemed ubiquitous around the world.
The day before Marawi, the Manchester bombing took the lives of twenty-three young people attending a concert. Last week, the London Bridge attack took the lives of eight people and injured another forty-eight when terrorists drove a van into a crowded area and began stabbing random people.
Though less publicized, the Middle East has seen the worst terror attacks of all over the last few weeks, with suicide bombings in Kabul (May 3), Tehran (June 7), and Karbala (June 9), each claiming the lives of dozens of civilians and injuring hundreds more.
How should we as Christians respond to such tragic events, to such evil? How should we pray in a time of global terror?
I have begun praying Psalm 83.
O God, do not keep silence;
do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
For behold, your enemies make an uproar;
those who hate you have raised their heads.
They lay crafty plans against your people;
they consult together against your treasured ones.
These are the first few verses of one of a handful of imprecatory psalms in the Bible—psalms that lament human evil and suffering and ask God to judge the wicked. If, like me, much of your Christian life has been one of relative comfort and safety, imprecatory psalms can be very weird to read, much less pray.
But for Christians who have lived in a war-torn region or who face real persecution, then imprecatory psalms speak directly to their experience in a way that nothing else can. I used to assume that imprecatory psalms were exclusively useful for those in extreme, life-threatening situations. But now, I’m beginning to realize that they are useful for all Christians who are confronted (even secondhand) with the depths of human evil and suffering.
Why? Because imprecatory psalms give us a healthy way to voice our anger, fear, terror, and sense of helplessness in the face of human evil. They give us a way to talk to God—to appeal to His justice, His sovereignty, His mercy—when we have no words of our own. They teach us how to think—and more importantly how to feel—about something like a suicide bombing in Manchester or children being shot by snipers in Marawi.
With the psalmists we can pray of terror groups, like ISIS or Abu Sayyaf, like Psalm 83 shows here:
O my God, make them like the whirling dust,
like chaff before the wind.
As fire consumes the forest,
as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,
so may you pursue them with your tempest
and terrify them with your hurricane!
Yes, it’s biblical to pray that God would bring His terror to the very people who are inflicting terror on others. And it is biblical to pray that God would bring righteous judgement on a group like ISIS.
But as you begin to pray these kinds of prayers, don’t forget that we should hate evil but love sinners. We should hate ISIS and the demonic principalities and powers that animate such wickedness, but we should forgive terrorists and pray that God reveals himself to them.
Even Psalm 83, with all its righteous anger, ends with a redemptive tone:
Fill their faces with shame,
that they may seek your name, O Lord.
Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever;
let them perish in disgrace
that they may know that you alone,
whose name is the Lord,
are the Most High over all the earth.
But does this really happen? Can God’s justice (and eventual mercy) toward the wicked result in some turning to Him?
The short answer is yes. Think about the apostle Paul, who persecuted the church, then had a radical encounter with God on the road to Damascus. Think about the people in our Every Nation family in the Muslim world who were members of al-Qaeda before they met Jesus. Think about own your life before conversion, which was no less worthy of God’s judgment than that of a terrorist.
In his short time on earth, Jesus prayed both imprecatory psalms and prayers of forgiveness towards His enemies. And so should we.