"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.
Keep praying about what matters to you. Don't let the awareness that someone else is praying for the opposite cause intimidate you from praying about what is on your heart. God knows we are finite beings with limited perspectives on what is happening in the world. What he wants from us is that we acknowledge our dependence upon him. This means that it pleases the Lord when we talk to him about what is on our hearts and minds, even if we show our biases in doing so.
Focus on the underlying issues. Rather than telling God what to do, concentrate on your underlying hopes and fears. Explain to God what you are most worried about, and express your hopes about how things might turn out. Rather than requesting a specific outcome-"Give our side the victory!"-ask for things like insight, wisdom, courage, patience, both for yourself and for the international decision-makers.
Pray for those whom you consider to be your enemies. This mandate comes directly from Jesus: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5: 44). We can't give up on anyone to whom God gives a chance to repent and change their ways.
Acknowledge that you might be wrong in the way you view things. I like the way the writer of Psalm 139 does this. At one point he gets quite excited about the fact that he and God are on the same side: "Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with a perfect hatred; I count them my enemies" (vv. 21-22). But then he seems to pause and take stock. (I imagine him saying "Oops!" at this point.) His mood changes: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (vv. 23-24).
If I ever go into business as a theological marital therapist, I think I will encourage couples who are engaging in prayer competitions to say Psalm 139 together at least once daily.