Last week, Wiley S. Drake, an California pastor and a former national leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, asked his followers to pray for the deaths of two leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS).

He did so because the group urged the IRS to investigate his church's nonprofit status. Drake had endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for president, doing so on church letterhead and during a church-affiliated internet radio show; the AUSCS was naturally concerned.

Drake said he was "simply doing what God told me to do." He believes AUSCS officials are "enemies of God" and that "God says to pray imprecatory prayer against people who attack God's church."

Leaving little to the imagination, Drake offered some samples that, I presume, were to be answered before God killed the officials: "Let his days be few, and let another take his office," his suggested prayer reads. "Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow."

This incident made the news partly because such prayers today strike us as absurd. It's weird news you can't use but find fascinating. But when we Christians hear about a character like Drake, we flinch because we know that such prayers litter the Bible—everything from King David's "Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!" (Ps. 139:19) to Paul's "If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed" (1 Cor. 16:22).

Such bursts of righteous indignation could be quietly shoved into the exegetical closet, except that the "meek and mild" Jesus had a reputation for not only killing fig trees with a curse, but also for cursing friends ("Get behind me Satan!" he tells Peter in Mark 8:33) and enemies: "You serpents, you brood of vipers," he yells at the Pharisees, "how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?" (Mt. 23:33).

These are not quite imprecatory prayers, because Jesus is not praying to the Father for judgment. Then again, Jesus doesn't need to pray to the Father for such, since he's been given the authority to judge (John 5:22). However we describe these words, they are in the same league as imprecatory prayer: bold assertions that horrific divine judgment should or will bear down on others.

As silly and archaic as the Rev. Drake sounds, he's in good company.

So why are we so uncomfortable with him—and with Jesus, David, and Paul? Well, for one, we no longer have much confidence in the truth of the gospel. We've all been infected by the relativistic air we breathe in this polluted century, at least when it comes to religion. We're happy to curse people and wish them ill if they smoke or drive without a motorcycle helmet or leave a large carbon footprint by driving an SUV. Then we don't hesitate to call upon principalities and powers to rain down judgment with a vengeance. When it comes to social and political issues, we can be as self-confident as, well, the Pharisees. But religion—that's a matter of mere opinion. Though the Bible issues warnings time and again regarding unbelief, we pretty much find it impossible to look a non-Christian in the eye and tell her she is going to face judgment.

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But let's not be too harsh on ourselves. This reluctance is partly due to the many Christians who have played the judgment card a little too often and a little too flippantly. Do that, and pretty soon your culture won't take you seriously. Ours doesn't take us seriously anymore.

We also remember Jesus' sayings about loving our enemies and blessing those who curse us. We love those verses because they suggest we should be nice to people. And who doesn't want to be nice? Nice people are treated nicely, after all! None of that persecution business to hassle with.

Of course, the same Jesus who said bless your enemies seems to have cursed them (along with his friends). So what gives?

What gives is that our understanding of what it means to love and to bless has become severely constricted in our sentimental age. We think that blessings should always feel good and that love is mostly about being nice. Jesus, on the other hand, specifically says that blessings sometimes feel like abject poverty, like grief, like starving to death, like being persecuted. And he showed his love for us by enduring the excruciating pain and abandonment of crucifixion.

Love always seeks the other's good, to be sure, but seeking the other's good is a complicated thing. How many parents have wished and hoped that their drug addicted son would hit bottom, would come to the point of complete misery and hopelessness—so that he would see God was his only hope? If this is not an imprecatory prayer, I don't know what is.

The difference between the Rev. Drake's prayer and those of desperate parents or even an angry Jesus is this: The Rev. Drake appears to have no love for his enemies but merely wishes them cursed. But is there not a way to pray for consequences, for pain—for judgment! —that leads to redemption?

I do not mean to suggest that all the curses and imprecatory prayers of the Bible (like Psalm 109, which goes on and on with curses) are models for us. Love and redemption do not often seem to be the driving motive! As C.S. Lewis, among others, has noted, the vengeful Psalms are but honest expressions of anger. The only thing they model is the freedom we have to be utterly vulnerable with God. But as Jesus taught, we are called to transcend vengeance with love, and curses with blessings.

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At the same time, we are a naïve and sentimental people if we equate love with mere social grace and think that niceness will successfully confront the massive and intransient evils of our day, individual and corporate. Redemption—personal, social, and cosmic—comes only through suffering. The paradox is that while we should not wish pain on anyone, it seems to be a perfectly loving and realistic act to pray for it.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He explores this theme more fully in his Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker). You can comment below or on his blog.

Related Elsewhere:

Articles on Wiley Drake's request for imprecatory prayer include:

Buena Park pastor asks followers to pray for the death of his critics | His response comes after a call to the IRS about a political endorsement he issued on church letterhead (Los Angeles Times)
Audit may be part of IRS' investigation of church | A Wichita church being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service for a possible violation of its tax-exempt status could soon be audited (The Wichita Eagle, Kan.)
Wichita church under scrutiny from IRS | IRS investigating political activity, abortion battles (Associated Press)
Funding faith-based charities | The way has been paved for faith-based organizations offering social services to tap into government dollars. In Utah, however, it seems many groups either can't find the on-ramp, assume there's a roadblock or simply prefer to take different roads (The Salt Lake Tribune, Ut.)

Previous SoulWork columns include:

On Not Transforming the World | We have better and harder things to do than that. (August 9, 2007)
Grace—That's So Sick | The church seems to be an embarrassment to everyone except its Lord. (July 26, 2007)
We Are Not Pregnant | The glory of men and women lies in their unbridgeable differences. (July 12, 2007)
Seeker Unfriendly | We need more than worship that makes sense. (June 14, 2007)
The Cost of Christian Education | Getting schooled in the faith is more unnerving than I care to admit. (May 31, 2007)
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)
I Love, Therefore You Are | Why the modern search for self ends in despair. (June 28, 2007)

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: