With the tensions and tragedies piling on top of each other in our country, it can feel like the world is pulling apart at the seams. I find myself wanting to pray, but I also struggle in prayer in this season. The difficulty with praying in times like ours is that we tend to want a God who is on our side – and our God isn’t. Christians pray to the God who descended with fire and fury on Sinai. We pray to the whirlwind who demanded Job answer for his ignorance and give an account for his bold demands. We pray with and in Jesus, the same Jesus who called Peter “Satan” to his face, telling him “you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:33). Unfortunately, we do not have the advantage of hearing God call us into account in the moment, and so our prayers can too easily become self-serving mechanisms to confirm our presuppositions. Instead, our prayers need to lead us into the truth, and lead us into the way of the kingdom. Rather than spitting our own fury and venom online (a temptation I have talked about here), we need to pause and recall James’ difficult word: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (Jas. 1:26). But bridling our tongue is not silence, it is using our words to seek the God of truth.
As we bring the upheaval in our country to God, therefore, we need to start by being “watchful” in our prayers (Col. 4:2). We are watchful because we need to see what our hearts long for in God’s presence. We need to be open to the truth of what we really want. Maybe, like David in Psalm 139, we declare, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!” (v. 19). It is there that we need to pause, with David, and then pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (vs. 23-24). It is this “search me” that I think we need to pay attention to. Before God, as we pray in his presence, we need to be searched, and we need to have our “thoughts and intentions” laid bare before him by the truth of his word (Heb. 4:12). But what does this mean during this kind of upheaval?
First, it means that our prayers cannot be that we would win, or that our side would prove victorious. This is the desperate desire to have God further our agenda in the world, not trusting that “his will be done” could very well be contrary to our own. Instead, we pray that the truth would be known. We pray that God would bring justice where there isn’t justice, and that he would once again shine his light into the darkness and expose the darkness for what it is. Second, we pray for our fellow Christians – all of them, in agreement with us or not – that they would bear the fruit of Christ and his Spirit. We pray that our response to our present situation would manifest a wisdom we are told is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Jas. 3:17-18). This means we pause on each of these words to consider our response, our emotions and desires, and consider if it accords with being open to reason, being full of mercy, and being peaceable. We pray that our response would epitomize the fruit of the Spirit marked as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control;” recalling that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:22-23). In our watchfulness, we must hold up our lives, our emotional responses, our rhetoric, and our social media posts against these things, and we must feel any tension we might have with them. This is where our prayers need to lead us.
When we pray we need to actually show up in prayer, which means we need to be watchful and open to the truth of ourselves in the presence of the God of justice and love. As we open these things to the Lord, we need to feel the weight of how little the ways of God tend to form our responses to the world. We need to hear James’ warning that our anger does not produce the righteousness of God (Jas. 1:20), and see how quickly we turn to anger to advance our agenda in this world. We need to consider that our God is sovereign, and that he calls us to bring these things to him in lament, sadness, frustration, anger, fear and yet longing for faithfulness. We need to name the truth of our hearts, whatever is bubbling over in us, to the God who calls us to have lives reordered around himself. In our praying, we bring all of this to the God who delivers, redeems, forgives, and rescues. Doing so is our first step in recalling our true hope – Christ – trusting that he really is present and active even in the darkest times.
When we fail to pray this way, too often our prayers become ways to reaffirm our flesh – asserting our views as sovereign, and trusting that we are in the right and everyone against us is foolish. It is this narcissism that has been on full display so often in our country, and, even, by Christians, too captivated by worldly goods to hold their lives up to the Word. We need to feel the weight of the Word, and we need to feel this especially in our prayers, allowing the Word of the Lord to condition all of our praying.
Kyle Strobel is the associate professor of spiritual theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and is co-author of the new book Where Prayer Becomes Real: How Honesty with God Transforms Your Soul (Baker Books).