Written by Andrea Nwabuike

On the car ride home from a watch night service several years ago, my family sat in uncomfortable silence as we listened to the radio. The show host was praying over her listeners’ prayer requests. For nearly an hour we listened as her voice rose in an impassioned plea against all witches, evil spirits, enemies of progress, and plans of the evil one.

I was amazed and slightly alarmed by her ability to name so many forms of wickedness. She pleaded the blood of Jesus, cast aside the plans of Ahithophel, and cursed those with ill intentions. Assaults were hurled at the devil and taunts leveled at all agents of destruction.

While I appreciated the host’s undeniable commitment to the protection and well-being of each listener, I couldn’t help but find the heavy emphasis on vengeance somewhat off-putting. “That’s enough,” my dad eventually whispered. He turned the radio off and we rode the rest of the way home in silence.

The tone of the prayer from that car ride was not wholly unfamiliar to me. Imprecatory prayers, those that invoke judgement and curses against the enemies of God and His people, are found in both the New and Old Testaments.

Imprecations in Scripture reflect the depth of indignation believers can and should experience in the face of evil. They entreat us to consider God’s justice as a present reality and not as some far-off concept. But the dark language used by the authors can be jarring, especially alongside Jesus’s commands to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

To resolve this tension, churches in the West have tended towards the erasure of imprecatory Psalms and prayers. The 1962 Canadian Prayer Book omits some of the more intense imprecatory Psalms, including Psalm 58 and Psalm 109:7-9.

While prayer is essential in the life of every Christian, cultural differences can shape our understanding of the nature and function of prayer. According to Femi Kolapo, professor of African history at The University of Guelph, regardless of religious affiliation, most Africans believe strongly in the efficacy and power of prayer.

Speaking to his native Nigeria, Kolapo attributes this deepened dependence on prayer to the socio-cultural landscape of the continent.  “For Nigeria and most of Africa, you still have a society that is largely informed by pre-secular sensibilities,” he explains. “People are much more attuned to the supernatural, to the spiritual, to God, spirits, and deities. You don’t have that clear demarcation between the secular and the non-secular as you have it here… For Africans, the spiritual realm affects the physical realm. It affects birth, health, wealth, and well-being.”

This heightened sensitivity to spiritual realities shapes the firm belief that both God and the forces of evil are actively involved in our current reality.

According to this worldview, poverty, illness, and family discord are explained, in large part, by the activity of spiritual forces. Imprecatory prayers enter into this otherwise unsafe and calamitous reality, offering a sense of power and control to the believer.

Along with the benefits, imprecatory prayers also have dangers. In some churches, congregations will pray for evil to be repaid with evil and for the death and destruction of personal enemies. Kolapo makes the distinction “between prayers directed towards individuals, which is contrary to what Jesus said we should do, and prayers that are directed against evil in general.” Bringing a personal agenda of vengeance to God or fixating our prayers on the power of evil causes bitterness to fester.

Given the secularization of our culture, most life challenges in Western churches are explained outside of the spiritual realm. While God may be called upon to intercede in particularly difficult circumstances, most of our problems can be handled without His help. Or so we believe. This view has cost us the vibrancy and devotion to prayer that is experienced in many African churches. Lifting our anger, lament, and desire for justice to God draws us closer to Him, allowing us to receive His love and extend it to those who oppose or wound us.

Praying polite, sanitized, or emotionless prayers build walls that prevent us from recognizing and experiencing the action of God in our world. We do not necessarily need to adopt the use of imprecatory prayers or embrace African worldviews but perhaps we ought to re-evaluate the boundaries and limitations we have placed on our practice of prayer. Prayer is communication with God that brings us into a deeper experience of the spiritual realm. In prayer, we have access to the love and power of God which has a profound effect on the physical realm.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer living in Toronto, Ont. Read more from “Church of many cultures.”