To pray for our abusers… or not? (we don’t need to pray for the sin that leads to death)
In Jeremiah chapter 7, God told Jeremiah to stand at the door of the temple and denounce the wickedness of the inhabitants of Judah. The message was that if they didn’t repent God would cast them out of his sight. God had inspired and empowered Jeremiah to deliver this message. (Can you imagine doing this at a church door today?) But God also said to Jeremiah:
do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me (Jer. 7:16)
While living in domestic abuse, Christians often pray fervently for their abusive partners.
My prayers went something like this:
“Dear God, please help my husband overcome his anger, depression, insecurity, addictions, demons, darkness, lack of insight, past wounds, terrible childhood, etc. Help him know and love you and receive your healing deep in his heart where it really counts. Help him receive you as his savior if he hasn’t actually been born again. Don’t let him go to hell. Help him see your loving kindness, so he can see how much he has been hurting me and our child; and enable him to fulfill his true potential with the power of your Spirit. Dear God, help me forgive what he’s done to me and put it behind me. Help me love him. And oh God, please help my pain.”
On our Prayer Requests page, Pepe asked for prayer for herself and her family and deliverance for her husband who has been revealed as a multiple and longstanding adulterer, liar and cheat. Pepe wrote: [This link is broken. Editors]
He has been confronted by me with all that he KNOWS is what the Bible says ..and he says he just wants to die and go to Hell…. He would rather DIE and go to Hell than live rightly … even if only for the children – ours and his mistress’s. He is without sorrow that leads to repentance…
I told Pepe I would pray for her and the children, but I couldn’t honestly pray for her husband because it sounds like he comes under the category of the kind of sinner we are not called to pray for.
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. (1 John 5:16)
Perplexing scriptural guidelines about praying or not praying for our abusers
In response to my mention of John 5:16, Pepe asked some good questions. [This link is broken. Editors.] Here is what she said (paraphrased a little by me):
Jesus said (Mat 5:44) But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. And (Luke 6:28) Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.
I was wondering how we are to reconcile these verses with the John 5:16 which seems to say not to pray for someone who has ‘sinned unto death’?
When speaking of the unforgivable sin – blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – Jesus seems to have been talking about the obstinate and chronic rejection of the Word which is the incorruptible seed which when received with meekness is able to save one’s soul.
So when a person’s heart is hard, when their ears are ‘stopped’ and they refuse to hear and heed, they have rejected the means by which the Holy Spirit comes. For the Holy Spirit comes by hearing the WORD then heeding then believing, since faith comes by hearing and hearing by the WORD OF GOD who is Jesus Christ according to Revelation 19:11-13
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and HE that sat upon him [was] called FAITHFUL and TRUE, and in righteousness HE doth judge and make war. His eyes [were] as a flame of fire, and on his head [were] many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he [was] clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and HIS NAME IS CALLED THE WORD OF GOD.
Then again, it seems that there is a distinction, because Jesus prayed the Father in John’s gospel….Jesus makes this distinction between those who are his and those of this world:
Jn 17:9 I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.
So perhaps it is those who refuse the road, who reject it, even if they hear it they disobey and do not repent, perhaps it is those people who are not to be prayed for?
If I, his wife, part of the one flesh that we are in marriage, do not pray for him, who will?
How do we know, in a particular case, whether it fits into the category of someone ‘sinning unto death,’ as opposed to being an ‘enemy’ or a ‘persecutor’? Furthermore, are these various texts reconcilable, or is there a contradiction?
In answer to Pepe’s questions, I would say that firstly, it’s important to realize that 1 John 5 does not command us not to pray for the man who is sinning unto death. It only tells us we are not required to pray for him. … I do not say that one should pray for that (Jn 5:16). As R C Sproul Snr puts it: “John does not exactly forbid praying for the brother who so transgresses, his language suggests that we should not be concerned to pray for those who commit the sin leading to death.” (my italics)
Secondly, in respect of Pepe’s worry that “If I don’t pray for him, who will?” I would say that she can let herself off the hook. If she does not pray for him that doesn’t mean she is forsaking her Christian duty and will get a big black mark from God. Her husband has categorically stated that he doesn’t care that he’s disobeying God. A wife of such a man need not consider herself one flesh with him, since the man has grievously broken the marriage covenant of unity that he should have honored. There is no one-flesh-ness when one party crushes the other and violates their integrity and personhood in multiple ways.
Thirdly, it’s worth remembering that Jesus is always interceding at the Father’s throne. Even if we are not praying, Jesus is praying according to the will of the Father. Prayer is not a hydraulic system of simplistic cause and effect. It’s wrong to think of our prayers as pulling up bucketloads of water in order to make the waterwheel of God’s power turn. Yes, our prayers are heard by God; but He doesn’t act simply because we have poured enough buckets of water onto the top of the waterwheel. He isn’t just waiting till the right number of buckets have been pulled up and poured out by us. If we think prayer works like a hydraulic machine which operates when enough water pressure is applied to the system, we have an incorrect view of prayer and of God.
Fourthly, I don’t think there is a contradiction. Scripture quite often holds paradoxes in tension, without that being an out-and-out contradiction. Yes, we are told to pray for our enemies and persecutors, but we are also given permission NOT to pray for someone who seems to be ‘sinning unto death’. Scripture does not spell it out more fully than that. But I take great comfort from the precept in 1 John 5, as it frees me from the responsibility of indefinitely having to pray for my abuser when he has violated my trust so repeatedly and shown no real repentance. I can let myself rest in the knowledge that I am not sinning by ceasing to pray for him. And I can let myself be guided by the Spirit as to who and who not to pray for. What a relief! What liberty. Jesus said:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28)
The sin leading to death
Lastly, let’s consider what the apostle means by ‘the sin leading to death.’ There are various understandings of what John means by that phrase. The problem divides into two parts: what is the sin, and what kind of death that John is referring to – physical death, or eternal death?
A well argued discussion that I find pretty persuasive is Irvin A Busenitz’s article The Sin Unto Death. The final paragraphs from his article are below. I’ve made some of the text bold to emphasise what will be key points for our readers. The italics are from Busenitz himself.
The apostle John appears to have in view an unsaved man who professes to be a believer, but who is in actuality in need of salvation. On the one hand [a brother committing a sin not leading to death], John refers to a man who is sinning but is not doing so to the point of the impossibility of being granted eternal life; he has not yet come to the place where the possibility of divine forgiveness has been revoked. In such cases, as a result of the intercessory prayer of a “brother,” God would grant spiritual life. On the other hand, the apostle asserts that if a man does sin to such an extent that repentance and forgiveness is impossible, it would be “unto death” spiritual death, spiritual death in the sense that his condition is irrevocable (cf. Matt 12:31-32). Thus the sin can be committed by a Christian when “Christian” is used in the broader sense to include those whose Christianity is merely a matter of profession, but it cannot if “Christian” means one who has actually been regenerated.
It is clear that “brother” in Scripture normally refers to a saved individual, but John’s usage of the term implies that in some cases there will be a difference between what is professed and what is actually true.
Furthermore, experience has vividly illustrated the power of God to regenerate the most reprobate of sinners, and therefore the believer should be careful not to judge the status of another too quickly. Nevertheless, John asserts that the habitual practice of sin does indicate the spiritual state of a man (cf. Gal 5:21). Consequently, while the believer is to pray for this sinning brother until God reveals otherwise, John reminds him that the efficacy of his prayer may not extend to that person and that the believer’s confidence should not be diminished thereby.
… in keeping with the Johannine theme, persistent sin in the life of anyone who professes to be saved indicates that he is not saved, and that the ultimate end of such is spiritual death. Although acts of sin do not cause one to die spiritually (man is born spiritually dead), the habitual practice of sin may lead to an irreversible state, a condition in which forgiveness will be no longer available. The limitation has only to do with the unbeliever, however, for the believer’s full forgiveness was procured by the death of Christ at Calvary.