Rules for Prayer Competitors

When we offer competing prayers in a war, we are hoping the Ruler of the Universe takes sides. Ours.

The couple told me they wished that I could provide them with "some theological marriage counseling." I had just finished giving a speech and they had approached the podium area for a brief chat.

"We're only kidding," she said. "Well, half kidding," he added, and they smiled at each other. She explained: "He thinks we should go to war against Iraq, and that we should get on with it quickly and get it over with. But I don't think we should fight at all. I favor diplomatic pressure, working through the U.N." He elaborated: "And the problem is that we both pray about this. I pray for war and she prays against it. When you mentioned the Civil War movie, you touched on a sensitive nerve for us."

In my talk I had referred to Gods and Generals, a film that focuses on the way in which two Southern military leaders, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, defended their cause by appealing to Scripture and praying for a divine blessing on their efforts. Many Christians in the North, I observed, prayed with equal ferver that the South would be defeated.

And this isn't just a piece of past history, I said. "Competing prayers" happen all the time-especially right now, as Christians line up on both sides of the debates about Iraq.

My conversation with this couple was brief. But it struck me that what they were experiencing is a microcosm of what is happening in the American church right now. Many Catholic leaders have echoed the Pope's insistence that an American attack on Iraq would violate "just war" principles, but some other Catholic thinkers have strongly supported the idea of a war to defeat Saddam Hussein. Mainline Protestant denominational leaders have criticized the stance of the Bush administration, while most evangelical Protestants seem supportive of the President's announced aims.


And Christian people are praying on both sides of the debate. I don't blame the couple who talked to me for expressing frustration about their competing prayers. It is one thing for married folks to prefer different candidates in a local election. If my wife thinks that I am supporting the wrong person for political office, she can at least take comfort in knowing that her vote cancels out mine. But when it comes to prayer, there is no cancelling out. When we talk to God, we are not casting votes. When we offer up competing prayers in a warfare situation, we are hoping that the Ruler of the Universe to take sides. And that means that one of us is asking God to do the wrong thing.

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