This week, in a e-mail group that I participate in, the current situation in the Ukraine came up, and members of the group encouraged each other to pray and fast for those suffering in Ukraine.
This request got me thinking about the propriety of praying for specific outcomes in our prayer.
I thought back to a particular experience that taught me a great deal of humility in regard to both prayer and politics:
When I was an undergrad at Brandeis University, I was very liberal and very strongly opposed to the War in Iraq and war generally. I actually signed on to a conscientious objectors list at one point. I also participated in anti-war rallies and peace vigils. At Brandeis, the various chaplains (Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish) organized a weekly prayer circle. They would get together weekly and pray that the war would end and that the U.S. would realize its mistake. In 2006 at the time when President Bush announced the surge, I remember joining them as they prayed that the surge would end. I also heard very specific prayers critical of other U.S. policies at various events.
For me, the results of the surge changed my views on politics and also my views on prayer. Something that I had fought so hard against and even prayed against (though I wasn’t really a strong believer at the time) had turned out to be the right policy at the right time. Although it was dramatically unpopular, the surge helped turn around the war and helped turn an unmitigated disaster into a potential victory.
From this experience, I specifically learned that sometimes we do not have the whole picture. I am of course not suggesting that any particular conflict is God’s will. But this experience helped me realize that governments, political parties, and ultimately each of us tend to see things “through a glass darkly.”
God on the other hand sees the big picture. He knows what good a particular trial can bring about on both a global and a personal level. One deeply personal example for me is the Holocaust. So many of my ancestors died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Such unspeakable human suffering is painful and difficult to fathom. I know many whose faith in God was irrevocably shattered because they could not understand how he allowed such suffering. And yet… one sees the state of Israel emerging as a result of the war. One sees the gathering accelerating as God’s hand moves. One sees the spread of international human rights and the increasing protection of liberty throughout the world. I don’t claim to know the full answer to “why,” but I have the humility to accept that it is part of God’s plan.
Because of this experience with the Iraq war peace vigils, I am very reluctant to pray for specific favored policy outcomes. In 2012 I heard some pray that Romney would win the election and others pray that Obama would win. I found this prayer to be akin to sports fans cheering that their prospective teams would win the Superbowl (and equally futile). God sees the bigger picture and he knows in what direction this country should head. Likewise, I don’t think its appropriate to pray that the Supreme Court side with Hobby Lobby in the Contraception mandate cases or take a particular stance on gay marriage.
This isn’t to say that prayer isn’t worthwhile in these areas. However, in praying for our leaders, or for social policy our prayers should be tempered with humility. I have heard several general authorities and leaders of the church for instance pray that the hearts of our leaders be softened that they may be able to listen to the light of Christ that is within them. I find this to be a much more appropriate prayer than wishing for a particular result.
In doing so, I believe those leaders are modeling their prayer after the Lord’s manner of prayer. In all that he did, he prayed that the will of God be done. Christ prayed that those around him would be strengthened and comforted, but not for particular outcomes in their trials. If Christ–the Son of God, the Messiah and the God of Israel–had such humility throughout his mortal ministry, then so should we.
I also am also not suggesting that believers simply sit on the sidelines and wait to see what happens. Far from it. Disciples of Christ should act vigorously to change the society around them. Disciples should speak out for what they believe to be true and not back down in the face of opposition.
But in prayer, our attitude should be one of submission and humility:Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.