The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results. – James 5:26 (NLT)
There is a tension when it comes to public prayer in the United States. Such prayers, especially those in conjunction with government sponsored events, have become watered down with oblique references to God. Living in a pluralistic society, care is given not to offend adherents of various religions, including those who do not advocate religion at all.
I was reminded of this fact recently with Monday’s inauguration of President Barach Obama. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medger Evans, delivered the prayer for the occasion. Within several hours of her prayer, the Huffington Post reported that Ms. Evers-Williams had incorrectly identified President Obama as the nation’s 45th president. (He’s in fact the nation’s 44th president.) The report made no mention that Ms. Evers-Williams also incorrectly quoted from the Pledge of Allegiance, omitting the phrase “under God.”
Please note that Ms. Evers-Williams did end her prayer with the phrase, “In Jesus’ name and the name of all who are holy and right we pray. Amen.” By inserting the phrase, “and the name of all who are holy and right,” Ms. Ever-Williams appeased non-Christians who might find it offensive to pray singularly in the name of Jesus. (Click here for a link for the full transcript of the prayer.)
My initial critique of the inaugural prayer quickly turned to a critique of my own thinking. I realized I was falling victim to thinking that plagues too many Christ-followers. I was expecting the government to endorse my faith.
We decry what appears to be ongoing removal of references to God and Jesus Christ from the public square. Yet, a careful study of the scripture reveals that God did not depend upon the government to be an agent of evangelism, especially in the New Testament. In fact the early church faced persecution from the Roman government at various times. This persecution did not weaken the church, but actually had the opposite effect. It strengthened it. Persecution is one of the fertilizers that God allows to grow his church.
This is not to say that government as various times has not come to aid of the church or been on the side of right. But often these efforts have had their beginnings with individuals or small groups of courageous people who were willing to take a stand. Consider William Wilberforce’s years’ long struggle to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Some have questioned President Abraham Lincoln’s tactics and movements in leading efforts to abolish slavery in the US, but the fact remains he did sign the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, the Executive Order declaring slaves free in the Confederacy. Lincoln later pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which formally outlawed slavery in the country.
In a republic like the United States we have many opportunities to influence the direction of our government. As citizens we can exercise our right to vote, lobby our elected officials or even run for political office. However we often overlook our most potent influence – prayer. God ordained the office of government. Proverbs 21:1, reminds us, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (NIV). Prayer stirs the heart of God who in turns stirs the heart of the king.
While public references to God in prayer may continue to decline, neither government nor any other entity can remove prayer from the most important place – my heart and yours. Only we can do that. We sometimes treat prayer as our last line of defense but we must remember it is the first arrow we should pull from our quiver.