Have you ever seen a football game where the guy gets the ball and promptly runs to the wrong end zone? Or a basketball game where a player gets disoriented and sinks one in the opposition's basket? Although in some ways it's funny (as long as it wasn't an athlete on your team that made the faux pas) isn't it really more painful to watch than humorous? Well, assuming you aren't a really cruel person. 🙂
Oddly enough, this situation came to mind when I read a Scripture quoted in Hank Hanegraaff's book, Christianity in Crisis: The 21st Century. He used a different translation and didn't include the first verse and a half, but for the purposes of this article:
Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, "Who is the Lord?"
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God (Proverbs 30:7-9, English Standard Version).
Now, I don't know about you…but when I pray for God's blessings I generally am a bit more ambitious than that…and Agur son of Jakeh's words seemed to be those of someone praying against himself. Sure, he didn't petition to be poor, but praying against riches? Seems like someone scoring for the other side…for his enemies who don't want him to be successful.
Of course, Agur's Holy Spirit-inspired words are great advice because the Son of God confirmed them when He said:
"Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23-24).
Not only do Agur's words hold a lot of wisdom, but they aren't the most counter-intuitive prayer in the Bible. For instance take the case of Stephen, who after giving a bit of a tongue-lashing to some stubborn Israelites (see Acts 7:51-53) was rewarded with a barrage of stones. Instead of calling down curses on those who deserved it…
And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:60).
Think about it. Not that there is a "good" way to die…but if you were being killed little-by-little with many painful, crushing blows from rocks, would you use one of your last breaths to ask that your murderers be forgiven?
Or would you be more of imprecatory Psalm type?:
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you (Psalm 5:10).
Now those are words I more readily imagine escaping the mouth of someone being stoned to death…
So, why such a "crazy" prayer from Stephen? Oddly enough, although his rebuke was likely a factor, the stoning didn't commence until this:
But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55-56).
…they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him (Acts 7:57-58a).
What set off Stephen's killers is the same person whose name sets off much of the secular world today:
And…even more illogical than a sinful man praying that the acts of his executioners not be held against them is another sinless man who, after being tortured, mocked, and nailed to a cross, using one of his lasts breaths to request, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34a).
Stephen prayed for the "opposition" because he had been changed by the One who set the opposition off…Jesus. He died like his Savior, and I suspect many people left the crime scene scratching their heads, wondering exactly why this nutty Christian didn't curse his enemies.
And one of those head-scratchers may have been Paul, who later was inspired to write that "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink" (Romans 12:20) and "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21). The One who changed Stephen also changed Paul…and that One…of all things…tells us to go sink a basket (or score a goal) for the opposition:
"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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is 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 5:43-46).
Pray for our enemies?! That's like praying that the other team wins!
Or is it? Ultimately, if we pray for selfish things (e.g. riches) or vengeance (e.g. that evil befall your enemies) that is when we actually score one for the enemy. It may seem upside down, but Jesus proved the wisdom of His words by living them out. How do we know? Because of where Stephen saw Him…"standing at the right hand of God."
And if we are willing to repeat Jesus' craziest prayer (from a worldly view), "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39b), we will be changed like Stephen and Paul and some day we'll be standing right next to the One standing at the right hand of God!