Don't Pray for Our Nation

Prayers are meant to be made for people, not policies.

I've often wondered what other people do during public prayer. For me, it feels like those times as a kid when you had to wait for your parents to finish their conversation with another grown-up. It's not appropriate to join in but you can't run off to do something else either. Sometimes I'll peek around to see how pious everyone else is. Or take a quick nap.

Obviously, I have no delusions that I understand corporate prayer (or individual prayer for that matter). But based on what I've heard from others, I'm not sure anyone else does either.

The National Day of Prayer is probably the most dramatic example of such ignorance. It's a day, formally recognized by Congress, that's dedicated to prayer for the nation. Many churches will hold special prayer services and many Christians will actually show up to offer their prayers for all of the country's ills. Some will pray against abortion, others white privilege, others marriage equality, and still others capital punishment. But all of them will inevitably pray that our leaders would come to know the truth.

This is biblical. In Paul's first letter to Timothy, he says, "I urge, then, that prayers be made for all people--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." We're not only encouraged to pray for our governing leaders, we're told that doing so will ensure peace in our lives. Thus, it makes sense that praying for peaceful lives means praying for our leaders to align their policies with the truth of God's word.

The truth, of course, depends on your particular political party's hermeneutic. For those in Colorado, the truth is likely God's establishment of marriage. They're praying that the Supreme Court won't redefine it and cause them unrest or force them into civil disobedience. For those in Baltimore, the truth is probably God's heart for justice. They're praying that the court won't acquit the six officers involved in Freddie Gray's death and cause more rioting, fear, and distrust.

These are the kinds of prayers you should expect to hear during the National Day of Prayer. And as biblical as it is to pray for our political leaders, the notion that this means praying for them to adopt biblical policies is not.

That passage in 1 Timothy is the only one in the entire Bible that addresses how we're to pray for our civil leaders. And like many proof texts, misinterpretation is the result of a lack of context as the following verses indicate:
...this is good [praying for all people], and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.
Many Christians have determined that the content of our prayers for leaders is dependent on whatever we think will give us peace. But the text is clear that peace is the result of prayer, not the reason for it. The content comes from the following verses about God's desire to save all people with the knowledge of the truth about Jesus Christ.

There's nothing here about public policy or politics. What we have is a call to prayer for the salvation of others. And the fact that the phrase "all people" is repeated three times indicates that the readers were disinclined to include their rulers in these prayers (probably because, at the time, they were rather evil). Which means that this passage isn't even about praying for our leaders. It's just a reminder that our leaders are people too who need Jesus.

Some might point out that David prayed against King Saul, and that his prayers should serve as an example to us since all Scripture is useful. One example of this that used to make anti-Obama bumper stickers was Psalm 109: "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership."

Apart from being disrespectful to our leaders, this operates under the fallacious hermeneutic that all Scripture is prescriptive, not descriptive. If you find that distinction troubling, then I dare you to make this verse 'useful': "Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." For the pro-lifers who made the previous psalm their prayer, this one would make an ironic prayer indeed.

A peaceful life doesn't come from political policies; it comes from a heart for the lost and prayers for the salvation of all. We don't need different laws on abortion and marriage or civil rights and capital punishment--we don't even need religious freedom to pray that Justices Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg. Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan will come to know Jesus. Or that State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and the rest of the Baltimore court will be saved (if they're not already). All we need is to have God's priority in mind: people.

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