Envied by most of the world, the citizens of the United States enjoy the freedom to hold and espouse diverse political views. Those views, however, do not emerge in a vacuum. They are shaped by our human experience, our family background, and our religious convictions.
For example, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy signed the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, which expanded the federal government’s ability to issue farm loans. As uninspiring as that may sound to some people, that piece of legislation allowed my uncle to buy a farm that he has worked and expanded for over 50 years. President Kennedy personally knew very little about agriculture, but his efforts to invest in farmers left a lasting and formative impression on my family that has shaped our political perspective and public engagement.
As public policy initiatives of elected officials affect our way of life, our political perspectives soon shape our souls. How we think, the values we hold dear, the convictions we feel compelled to propagate, and the way we treat our neighbors all come from the private place of our soul. That is the reason that although the government cannot establish religion, the religious convictions of the citizenry most certainly influence public policy.
Perhaps that is the reason the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
Paul knew that peace, a tranquil and quiet life, in the city of Ephesus would make room for the gospel of peace in the hearts of the residents of that city and beyond. So “first of all” praying was the most powerful way for New Testament Christians to love their neighbors and to promote peace in their community.
Now in our present political environment as divisions widen on over public policy, as bickering has become a national past time, and as anger is often the currency of public debate, it could be that the most effective way for us to minister to the souls of our neighbors is to pray for everyone, including our neighbors, our leaders, and all who are in authority.
More than persuasive arguments and more than political tactics, it seems God uses our “first of all” praying to influence our conversations over the backyard fence, to direct our political engagement in the public square, and to ultimately make room for policies that promote peace in our communities.
It could be that the most effective way for us to minister to the souls of our neighbors is to pray for everyone, including our neighbors, our leaders, and all who are in authority.
How then do we engage in this kind of praying? Perhaps these four “first of all” habits of prayer will help:
Pray with a fresh awareness of God.
Prayer is by definition an invitation for human beings to turn our attention to God. When we pray, we acknowledge that God transcends the time and space we currently occupy. God is eternal with no beginning or end. He is perfectly holy, and he is unlimited in love, power, and wisdom. Very simply, God is greater than we are. His sovereign reign over every created thing means that we can trust him for every issue, big or small, new or systemic, that affects our families, communities, and our nation.
So rather than living anxious and angry, rather than withholding kindness and love from those who hold diverse views and values, and rather than talking past our political rivals, we can fully trust a God who always rightly acts with righteousness.
Pray with an honest assessment of yourself.
Prayer reminds us of our personal limitations. If we were self-sufficient and possessed complete understanding, praying to God would be unnecessary. But we have real needs that we cannot meet. We not only live as fallen, sinful people, we also bear the burden of a certain amount of ignorance. The human experience includes consequences of our personal and national transgressions are beyond our ability to repair.
So we all need mercy, grace, forgiveness, restoration, and wisdom that only God can provide. As we humble ourselves and ask him for help, he responds not with condemnation, but with generosity and blessing.
Pray with a genuine interest in others.
When the prophet Micah called God’s people back to God, he called them to care about other people: “Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Additionally, the prophet Jeremiah called exiled Jews to pray for and seek the welfare of their foreign city (Jeremiah 29). And then when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he pointed out the hypocrisy of some religious leaders who used prayer and fasting as an opportunity to promote themselves. They were more concerned about how they were seen by others than how well they served others.
Whatever their political views, background, moral or religious convictions, or usefulness is to us, our neighbors, our leaders, and all who are in authority are created by God and bear his image.
So effective praying comes from the heart of a Good Samaritan who actually stops to help. Our prayers may sound angelic, but without sincere love for neighbor demonstrated by a willingness to listen, understand, and serve people who are different from us, they are only a noisy gong and clanging cymbal.
Pray with an enthusiastic expectation for the future.
People of faith who have little faith in God do not serve our neighbors very well. The Bible tells us that God hears the humble cries of his people; that God forgives and restores sinful, broken, wayward people; and that God turns weeping into laughter.
Is it possible, then, that negativity among God’s people is the sin that oppresses our neighbors and our nation more than any other? Is it possible that our cynicism toward an unbelieving world reveals our own unbelief that the gospel is really the power of God to turn even the hardest heart into a believing one? Is it possible that our pessimistic view of the world is the attitude God is waiting for us to leave behind? Is it possible our refusal to trust the Spirit to act powerfully through his Church to show and tell the Good News has left our neighbors stuck in the bad news of sin and brokenness? The call to pray is, at the heart, a call to believe God for greater things as he advances his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Not every Christian is called into politics and not every Christian has a loud voice in the public square, but every Christian is called to love our neighbors. And we do that most powerfully through “first of all” praying—the kind of praying that cares for souls, seeks the peace of our communities and our nation, and makes room for the gospel to take root in the hearts of the neighbors across the street and around the world.