Pray for Your Public Officials
1 Timothy 2:2
September 26, 2010
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
With our midterm elections close at hand, whose side is God on? Each election cycle in our country, the Republican and Democratic parties fight over this question. For it is regarded as a distinct advantage to be able to show that God is on your side.
A Biblical Anachronism
But how could we ever know if this is so? Well, how do we ever know anything about what God’s thinking? Out of our great Christian tradition we have learned that if we are going to know what God does for us and expects from us, we will have to read the Holy Scriptures – which is his abiding revelation to us (1 Peter 1:24-25). But on that score the Bible doesn’t seem to help much, because it would be a pure anachronism to expect the Bible to shed light on our political question. And that’s because the Bible was revealed long before there were Democrats or Republicans! But some politicos will still hope to find God’s favor for their candidate by showing how the principles in the Bible coincide with their candidate’s views. But that’s a fool’s errand if there ever was one, because the correlation is rarely specific enough to endorse any given candidate and, even if it were, there still would be the problem of them breaking their promises after the election’s over.
So does this intellectual quagmire make the divine endorsement of any given candidate impossible? And because of that, are we to suppose, in addition, that God isn’t interested in the political scene whatsoever, and especially all the fuss we make over it?
Praying for Our Leaders
Well, not quite. For when we search the Scriptures for an endorsement from God for our candidate, we not only learn about such endorsements being anachronistic, but also something else. For in 1 Timothy 2:2 we read:
I urge prayers for… kings and all who are in high positions, so that [ινα] we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.
So while we find no specific political endorsements in the Bible, we certainly do find a robust admonition to pray for our leaders that God might be with them, bless them, and guide them.
And this 1 Timothy 2 passage isn’t the only place in the Bible where this is said. And so we’re not making a mountain out of a mole hill by dwelling on it. No, for elsewhere we’re also told that God cares deeply for our leaders and the support we should give them (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14).
Given these verses, you would think that the need for our prayers would be obvious – but alas it has never been. That’s because we can be tricked into thinking that our leaders aren’t “wanton” and corrupt (Revelation 18:9) because of their disdain for God’s ways (Hosea 8:4) – and so they don’t stand in need our prayers! Americans seem to have fallen for this for generations.
Just think of George Washington (1732-1799), our first president, made superhuman by Horatio Greenough’s (1805-1852) ten foot tall, 30 ton marble and granite statue of him, seated as the Greek god Zeus [Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington & the Enlightenment: Images of Power in Early America (1984) pp. xv, 74]. Or think of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), and his transformation into King Arthur of the magical kingdom of Camelot, with his Knights of the Round Table [John Hellmann, The Kennedy Obsession: The American Myth of JFK (1997) p. 146]. But these political dreams, and more like them, are only that, dreams that are unsubstantiated by the facts – early and late. For upon reflection we have to grant that all sorts of corruption are lodged deep down in our history – from the Black Friday Gold Scandal of 1869, to the Iran-Contra Affair of 1986. And so “much of what we hear and see in the political world consists of lies and deception” [Benjamin Ginsberg, The American Lie: Government by the People and Other Political Fables (2007) p. ix; and also Dick Morris, Off With Their Heads, 2004].
But this corruption doesn’t necessitate the elimination of all government and the exaltation of anarchy! Nor does it authorize self-rule and roaming gangs of vigilantes. No, according to the Biblical message, this political corruption must only lead to prayer – pure and simple. In fact, because of the very corruption of our leaders, prayer is all the more important – and of ever greater urgency and need than we could ever imagine.
Martin Luther – the most important teacher for Lutherans, according to our Confessions [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 576] – would agree. In his commentary on 1 Timothy – which he completed in 1528 – he expands upon our little Bible verse in greater and more graphic detail. He charges us to
pray for [our] public officials [that we might] lead a… peaceful life [being able to] build, plow, fish, sail in safety, walk, sleep, eat, have chaste wives and children who apply themselves, [and] feed our herds. Those good things which we have because of God’s great blessing no one considers as good things. Indeed, God bestows them, but He preserves them through public officers. In time of war there is no peace. One cannot go in or out…. What a wretched state of affairs it [is]. I am sure that Satan plans… to stir up a war through the princes and bishops…. The power to begin a war is in our hand; to stop it is in Another’s hand…. We must pray for public officials; when they have peace, we have peace, too. So we must pray also on behalf of evil men…. Let our prayer not be a carnal one, a prayer that seeks our own ends. We must not pray to live in wealth but… that godliness… may… exist through this peace. The ungodly use peace for… wickedness. We use peace that we may more quietly be able to discuss the Word, extend the faith, and bring up children in… Christian discipline (Luther’s Works 28:259).
Notice that these prayers aren’t for the political ambitions of the leaders or for their party’s agenda. Instead we are to pray for our leaders in order that the greater human community, under their rule, might flourish in the most mundane and simple ways.
Therefore when we pray for our leaders it isn’t supposed to be political or partisan in thought or tone in any way at all. We simply are to pray for them – whoever they may be. And that doesn’t mean that you pray for your friends to win and for your enemies to lose – or something worse than that! No, we are to pray that we – and our entire country – will flourish, regardless of who our leader is. So we are to pray for them every day. And since our prayers will only be about them succeeding and our land prospering, we must pray all the time regardless of our party affiliation.
Luther’s Fatted Pigs
Luther covers this point well about watching over our leaders carefully. In his treatise of 1523 on Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, he offers these helpful notes:
You are to take the risk of entrusting matters to others, but you are yourself to trust and rely upon God alone. You will certainly have to entrust duties to somebody else and take a chance on him, but you should trust him only as one who might fail you, whom you must continue to watch with unceasing vigilance. [Just so] a coachman has confidence in the horses and wagon he drives; yet he does not let them proceed on their own, but holds rein and lash in his hands and keeps his eyes open…. Otherwise, the lords will become fatted pigs and worthless fellows, of benefit to no one but themselves (LW 45:123).
Praying for our leaders is certainly an honorable way of keeping our eyes open and being unceasingly vigilant! And this is not only right because God has put our leaders in power, as Romans 13:1 says (LW 45:94), but also because they aren’t perfect, as Acts 5:29 says, and so they need our prayerful scrutiny (LW 45:125). Praying for our leaders then gives us hope that we can do something to keep them from becoming Luther’s fatted pigs! For God knows, as Luther also points out, that “those least capable of conducting the affairs of state administer them” (LW 3:53)! This leads Luther to say, in effect, that a smart pagan leader would be better than a dumb Christian one, for at least the pagan in this case would know how to restrain the wicked, who are our main concern, “since the world is nothing else than a crowd of evil people” (LW 9:19)!
Luther daringly builds this vigilance on the category of limited trust – which is when we trust our leaders even though we know that they aren’t completely trustworthy. But what kind of trust has this sort of suspicion build right into the heart of it? What sort of trust is it that includes a trust in God that trumps our trust in our worldly leaders? Such a trust would be, on Luther’s account, a limited or risky trust indeed – which is the only kind Christians are allowed to have in their leaders – human and sinful as they are.
No Carnal Prayers
And Luther goes on further. Back in his commentary on 1 Timothy he adds that our prayers for our leaders mustn’t be carnal. That’s to say, they shouldn’t be offered to make our lives easier and more self-absorbed! We should instead offer them in order to advance God’s message throughout the world – to “extend the faith, and bring up children in… Christian discipline” (LW 45:123). That is the key reason why we should pray for them!
And why is that? Because Christ is more important than everything else (Philippians 3:8) – even more important than when “grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7)! So we are all called to sing out with Luther, in his 1536 sermon on Philippians 3 [Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 8:353, 356]:
This is the situation and there is no alternative: Either suffer hell or regard your human righteousness as loss and filth and endeavor not to be found relying on it at your last hour, in the presence of God and judgment, but rather stand in the righteousness of Christ. In the garment of Christ’s righteousness and reared in him you may, in the resurrection from sin and death, meet Christ and exclaim: “Hail, beloved Lord and Saviour, thou who hast redeemed me from the wretched body of sin and death, and fashioned me like unto thy holy, pure and glorious body!”…. And [so] our whole concern is to be eternally in Christ; to have our earthly existence culminate in yonder life when Christ shall come and change this life into another, altogether new, pure, holy and like unto his own, with a life and a body having the nature of his.
So stand in the righteousness of Christ – and not in your own achievements! Meet Christ at the end and say, “Hail beloved Savior!” Let your earthly life culminate in yonder life with him!
Those Severe Psalmic Warnings
But we still are tempted to trust too much in our leaders and diminish Christ – thinking that it is really our leaders who can keep us safe from wars and every harm. This misplaced confidence comes from the distortions that our sinful rebellion inflicts upon us. For earthly hope is finally futile and of little or no help. That’s because wars and other calamities are the manifestations of God’s wrath – something which no political leader can guard us from in the end. Therefore we should take these Psalmic warnings to heart:
Men of high estate are a delusion;… they are together lighter than a breath…. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in man [or] in princes…. [Therefore] put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plan perish (Psalms 62:9; 118:8-9; 146:3-4).
Adding to these admonitions, Luther drives the message home:
Men do not have the right word or spirit to comfort and uphold a sorrowful heart…. When a person is really downcast, how, pray tell, can all the emperors, kings, princes, and all power, skill, possessions, and honor of the whole world comfort him?... [Or] when one stands at death’s door, what good can the power and might of…. the children of the…. world do?.... Life is uncertain; [people] die daily, and their comfort and help must give place to death. As plain as this is, the devil is still mighty and will not let us believe it. It remains a rare and remarkable skill not to trust in men and princes (LW 14:66).
And so we must continue to struggle against our reliance upon one another in times of distress – for there is in fact no help there! For we can change the world after a fashion, but we cannot control those changes in such a way that they will work together to make for a better world (LW 13:217)! Only God can do that.
Our Mother Hen
For what we are up against is too mighty to be overcome so easily. For war, for instance, is actually one of God’s “four sore acts of judgment” against us (Ezekiel 14:21) – along with disease, famine and wild beasts, to say nothing of earthquakes (Numbers 16:31-32), fire (Numbers 11:1), hailstones (Isaiah 30:30) and storms (Ezekiel 13:13)! Against this wrath only Christ, suffering for us, can protect us (Romans 5:9). For according to the Lutheran Confessions, “only Christ, the Mediator, can be pitted against the wrath of God” (BC p. 136). On this matter Luther again sings out:
Christ is [our] mediator before God…. who makes us holy and acceptable to God the Father. For man’s possessions, by birth and nature, are but sin and corruption, by which he brings down upon himself the wrath of God. [For] God is eternal righteousness and purity, and therefore, from his very nature, hates sin. Hence there is always enmity between God and the natural man, and they cannot be friends…. For this cause, Christ became man and took upon himself our sins and also the wrath of the Father, and drowned them both in himself, thus reconciling us to God the Father…. Therefore Christ must come, that he might go before the Father’s face, reconcile us to him, and obtain for us everything we lacked…. Whatever we obtain from God, we must receive through this Christ, who has gained for us a merciful Father. For Christ is our support and refuge, where we may hide ourselves, like the young chickens hide under the wings of the mother hen. Through him alone… we obtain the favor and mercy of the Father; for Christ has made atonement for our sins, and an angry judge he has changed into a gracious and merciful God…. [For] Christ has taken upon his head… the sins of the whole world, also the wrath of the Father… whereby we are [made]… altogether righteous (SML 4:198-199).
Give thanks, then, for Christ, our mother hen – more than by far for any public official! For Christ shields us from God’s wrath. And he can do this because he has taken that wrath upon himself, suffering in our place, being punished by God, drawing that wrath out of God and into himself and thereby drowning it in himself that we might be favored by God forever – something no worldly leader could ever do for us. This is our salvation when we believe it (Romans 3:25). For in Christ God’s blessings replace his threats, his grace topples his hate, and his love surpasses his indignation.
So come and receive Christ today – the One who died for you that you might live forever in heaven with all the saints and martyrs who have gone before you and are now at rest. Come and eat of the bread and drink of the cup, for in this sacrament is life – and abundantly so (John 6:53; 10:10). For in this life is love that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). And this confidence is given to us, “solely in the blood of Christ” (LW 30:302) – which we graciously have before us this day in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. So come and eat. Be sure not to miss out on this treasure!
And then let it also be known that all who believe in Christ must also work overtime for him. And that is because we don’t believe in him in order that we can take our ease, eat, drink, and be merry (Luke 12:18)! No, we believe in him instead so that we can do good works in his name and further his kingdom on earth (Ephesians 2:10). And so our Lord admonishes us to make friends with dishonest people and learn from them (Luke 16:9).
But what’s that about? Does our Lord want us to live a life of crime? Is he leading us astray? Not at all! As Luther puts it, Jesus is not praising the unrighteous in his charge to us, but only “the diligence employed [by them]” (SML 4:314).
So take this diligence to heart. Work overtime for the Lord. “Never flag in zeal” (Romans 12:11). “Fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). Don’t “grow weary in well-doing” (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13; Hebrews 12:3). Call on God to light a fire under you in order to get you on the right path – and he will hear your prayers for strength. He will help you. And he will even get you to pray for your leaders in just the right way. For we know that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)