The prefix "mis" is applied to a verb to indicate unsuitable or unacceptable action. (i.e. misunderstood, misheard, misbehaved) When we mistreat someone, our actions have been either deficient or defective. In other words, we've failed to treat them to appropriate care and consideration, or to proper honor and respect.
The pain we feel from mistreatment almost always comes from the sting of unmet expectation. Expecting kindness, we get cruelty; expecting response, we get silence; expecting warm reception, we get cold dismissal; expecting honesty, we get deception; expecting concern, we get indifference.
This is important to understand, because the hurt we experience from being mistreated (severe abuse aside) rarely centers on the deficient or defective treatment itself, but on the fact that we were expecting to be treated to something better. This means that we have to think biblically about our expectations if we expect to think wisely about mistreatment. If our claims of mistreatment don't center on expectations that are right and reasonable, we undermine the discussion with claims of mistreatment over expectations that were never agreed upon or that flow from a selfish reach for affirmation, acceptance and attention that could never be reasonably satisfied.
But where legitimate mistreatment exists (***see final note), the biblical directive to "pray for those who mistreat you" is indeed the answer to the mending of our wounded heart. It doesn't mean we won't continue to suffer, but it means we can enjoy spiritual health in the midst of the hurt.
There are 3 reasons why prayer is a powerful balm for the wounds that come from abuses both big and small:
1. Prayer Humbles Our Spirit
When we kneel at the Cross, we are reminded of the sin that nailed our Savior to the tree. It was our sin. And when we see that sin in light of the absolute perfection of a holy God, we catch a glimpse of how far short we fall from his glory. It's a glimpse that humbles us, leaving no room for a condescending spirit that focuses on the sin of another as if it's somehow greater than our own.
The Cross gives us a perspective of our sin that shatters prideful comparison. If meeting the glory of God required our having to jump across the Grand Canyon, it wouldn't matter to us if someone jumped three feet and we jumped four. It wouldn't matter how much muscle we mustered up to take the leap, our immense inability to perform would too profoundly mark us as a failure to find any comfort in the fact that our leap may have been stronger than another.
We don't have to jump across any canyon to meet the glory of God, but we do have to be sinless and perfect and be holy as he is holy. In other words, we have to lead a life that we could never lead. A life that Christ came to live for us! The Cross reminds us that we are a debtor to mercy, a debtor who has no claim on even one tiny dot of righteousness that is our own.
2. Prayer Engages Our Heart
When we kneel at the Cross, we are reminded of the love that was pure enough to suffer on our behalf. Love that flowed deep and wide enough to cover our indignance of sovereign power, insolence of sovereign rule, and indifference of sovereign sacrifice. Love that pursued us in spite of our reckless rejection and wicked refusal. A love of immeasurable sacrifice that engages our heart to love others even as we have been loved.
When we've been wounded by another, the natural response is to ruminate over their sin and rehearse the offense repeatedly in a fruitless attempt to reason our way through an explanation. Why would they hurt me like this? How could they be so cruel? And depending on the severity of the mistreatment, the natural response is to rage with thoughts of retaliation and revenge. I want them to suffer the way they've made me suffer. It's a response of sinful humanity that pumps anger into our heart, causing it to bitterly beat the drum of injustice.
But when we fall to our knees in prayer for the one who has harmed us, we kneel before the Suffering Savior who obliterated the very chains of sin that strangle us with their cruel injustice. Through the sacrifice of the Righteous One we are granted full access to the throne of the Just One who tills our wounded heart with grace and tenderizes it with mercy until it beats with love.
3. Prayer Shapes Our Mind
Prayer helps us to wade through the fog of our emotions and the distortions of our limited perspective. When we kneel before the Cross we're granted the clarity to see our strong impulse to spin narratives that leave us either hopeless or guiltless. Narratives that in one chapter have us the victim drowning in despair, and in the next chapter the survivor standing in strength.
At the Cross the covering of our shame is so wholly complete that it frees our mind to face truth without reshaping our story. Without any need for denial we're able to humbly confront the presence of sin (in ourselves first) without fear. And the love we find there is so powerful that it isn't bound by any required response from another. It's a love that isn't dependent on the humble repentance of the one who has wounded us; not on their favor, their faithfulness, or any request for forgiveness.
There's indescribable freedom in having a mind transformed by the Cross enough to genuinely love those who have hurt us and to sincerely desire their well-being. A genuine love that resists assigning evil motivation where it can't be discerned, and a love that refuses harming a good reputation when appropriate. And where patterns of abuse are claimed to exist in a relationship, it's a love that runs far too deep to illicit irresponsible assumptions and prideful judgments about how that relationship should unfold. It's a love that knows perfect understanding, especially in these complicated matters, resides in its Author alone.
Pray for those who mistreat you.
God inspired this injunction with a sovereign breath of love knowing we would suffer relational hurt. Knowing our expectation to be treated with kind consideration would be thwarted by sin, he gave us a remedy. Knowing bitterness would worm its gnarly way into our broken heart and plant its seeds of destruction, he gave us an escape plan that calls for us to run to the Cross.
God said it, and I believe it. There is healing in the kneeling.
***Aside from overt abuse, there are no two people who are going to find complete agreement on what constitutes mistreatment. But the more comfortable we become humbly kneeling before our Savior, the less we'll quibble over its presence or absence. If we're accused of mistreating someone, love will have us seeking to mend what has been wounded even if that mending rightly includes gently highlighting hypersensitivity or unreasonable expectation. And if we're the ones who have experienced violation of legitimate expectation and believe addressing it is important to the integrity of a relationship, our love won't be dictated by an unfavorable response whether it's strong defense or cold silence.