“Father, Forgive Them” Praying for Our Enemies with the Heart of Christ

When you think about it, forgiveness makes no sense. When someone offends you, the reasonable thing to do, by instinct, is to retaliate. Even the score. Make so-and-so pay. Teach that person a lesson.

An eye for an eye makes sense. Especially when you feel betrayed. But forgiveness? Hardly. And yet, it’s precisely the unexpected, contradictory nature of forgiveness that makes it so Christlike.

No one modelled the spirit of forgiveness better than Jesus. During the excruciating pain of His crucifixion—even as the soldiers were hammering the metal spikes through His wrists and feet—Jesus exclaimed,

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Humanly speaking, the natural thing for Jesus to have done was pray for God’s rescue. He had His Father’s ear. A two-second appeal would have put “thousands of angels” at His disposal (Matthew 26:53). Instead, He felt sorrow and had pity.

The mocking crowd challenged Jesus to protect Himself. Even the thief next to Him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” (Luke 23:39).

But instead of calling on His Father to save Him, Jesus prayed to His Father to forgive the ones who were causing Him so much pain.

Now, you may be thinking, as I was when I first considered Christ’s words of forgiveness, No way could I have done that. Who can ask God to forgive an enemy? Is it even possible?


Praying for forgiveness for our enemies is possible, even when our instincts work against it. The Holy Spirit can help us rise above our feelings of pride, anger, and self-preservation. He gives us a deep and broad perspective, softening our hearts to extend Christlike love to all—even to our enemies who hurt us.

It’s easy to love the lovely and forgive the forgivable. Christians are unique because of the One we follow. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Christians can love the unlovely and forgive the unforgivable. But how?

By following Christ’s lead.

Here are a few clues in Jesus’ prayer from the cross.

First, He prayed to the Father. In this painful moment, Jesus turned His thoughts to the Father. Rather than dwell on His misery, rather than brood on the injustice of the moment, rather than consider how He could get out of the pain and get even, Jesus immediately looked to the Father.

Second, He asked the Father to forgive. What does forgive mean? The early church martyr, Stephen, expressed it verbally while his enemies were hurling rocks at him, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” (Acts 7:60). Ask God to show your enemies mercy—the opposite of what any of us deserve.

Third, He asked the Father to forgive them. Jesus prayed very specifically. He had the soldiers in mind. But, in a larger sense, the objects of His prayer were all sinners...including you and me. Sinful humanity put Him on the cross. Realizing our own need for the Father’s forgiveness makes us humble. Humility helps us pray for our enemies who need the same forgiveness that we need.

Fourth, Jesus said, “they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus felt compassion for those blinded by sin. Our enemies will perish unless God opens their eyes, revives their hearts, and forgives them. The light of forgiveness is more effective at overcoming darkness than any retaliation.

It’s very possible you have someone in mind right now who has hurt you. If so, pray through and reflect upon the Son’s teaching and example. Don’t trade punches. Instead, take pity. Have compassion. See your enemies through Jesus’ eyes and pray for God to forgive them. I know it makes no sense. It’s irrational. It’s not natural. But that unexpected, Christlike contradiction is exactly what makes forgiveness so beautiful.

Insight for Living Ministries staff adapted this article from Pastor Chuck Swindoll’s sermon, “Father, Forgive Them,” in his series, The Darkness and the Dawn.