Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a young German Lutheran pastor, theologian and one of the founding members of the Confessing Church. He also wrote one of the best-known books, The cost of Discipleship and he joined a group of conspirators whose attempted assassination of Hitler failed which led to his arrest and subsequent death in April 1945. Bonhoffer said the way Christians defeat their enemies is by loving and praying for them.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45 NKJV)
The Lord Jesus Christ, commands us that we are to pray for those that despitefully use and persecute us. Jesus doesn’t promise that when we our enemies and do good to them they will not persecute us. They will of course persecute us. But if we pray for them we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them, and in the process we are doing for them what they cannot do for themselves.
The following excerpt is taken from his book The Cost of Discipleship, where Bonhoeffer quotes A.F.C. Vilma, another German theologian. Vilma has a prophetic word for us in relation to loving our enemies in times of persecution that will increase and therefore we to need to pray corporately for the persecutors:
This commandment that we should love our enemies and forgo revenge will grow even more urgent in the holy struggle which lies before us and in which we partly have already been engaged for years. In it love and hate engage in mortal combat. It is the urgent duty of every Christian soul to prepare itself for it. The time is coming when the confession of the Living God will incur not only the hatred and the fury of the world, for on the whole it has come to that already, but complete ostracism from human society as we call it. The Christians will be hounded from place to place, subjected to physical assault, maltreatment and death of every kind. We are approaching an age of widespread persecution.
There lies the true significance of all the movements and conflicts of our age. Our adversaries seek to root out the Christian Church and the Christian faith because they cannot live side by side with us, because they see in every word we utter and every deed we do, even when they are not specifically directed against them, a condemnation of their own words and deeds. They are not far wrong. They suspect too that we are indifferent to their condemnation. Indeed they must admit that it is utterly futile to condemn us. We do not reciprocate their hatred and contention, although they would like it better if we did, and so sink to their own level.
And how is the battle to be fought? Soon the time will come when we shall pray, not as isolated individuals, but as a corporate body, a congregation, a church: we shall pray in multitudes (albeit in relatively small multitudes) and among the thousands and thousands of apostates we shall loudly praise and confess the Lord Who was crucified and is risen and shall come again.
And what prayer, what confession, what hymn of praise will it be? It will be a prayer of earnest love for these very sons of perdition who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who perhaps already have raised their hands to kill us. It will be a prayer for the peace of these erring, devastated and bewildered souls, a prayer for the same love and peace which we ourselves enjoy, a prayer which will penetrate to the depths of their souls and rend their hearts more grievously than anything they can do to us.
Yes the church which is really waiting for its Lord, and which discerns the signs of the times of decision, must fling itself with its utmost power and with the panoply of its holy life into this prayer of love.