Not long after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, bumper stickers began to appear on cars that read “Pray for Obama” with the scripture reference “Psalm 109:8.” At first glance, the message seemed a noble call for Americans to pray for their newly-elected president. On further inspection, however, the bumper sticker was intended as a cruel joke. Psalm 109 is what scholars call an imprecatory psalm, one that seeks curses or evil on someone. The verse referenced on the bumper sticker reads: “May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership.” The next verses in the Psalm offer even stronger curses such as “may his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Psalm 109:9).
Prayer is not a laughing matter. It is an opportunity to humble ourselves before the Almighty God, sharing our innermost thoughts and seeking his help and guidance. As November 8 draws near, followers of Christ should be praying about the election in a spirit of Christian love and humility, expressing heartfelt concern for the nation, the candidates, and the process. Such prayer should include:
“Paul reminds us that our posture towards those in authority—if we voted for them or not, and if we plan to vote for them or not—must first of all be one of prayerful concern and thanksgiving.”
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he opened with adoration: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9). When we begin prayers humbly acknowledging the holiness and majesty of the one true God, we focus our attention on the proper context for political engagement: God’s kingdom coming, God’s will being done on earth as in heaven.
Beginning our prayers for this election season with adoration of our all-knowing and all-powerful God, who is our loving heavenly Father, frees us from engaging politics out of fear. It also frees us from focusing on our own self interest. Instead, we enter God’s presence in awe of his holiness, with humility and gratitude.
Before we bring requests to God, prayers of individual and corporate confession reflect our encounter with his holiness. Confession acknowledges our personal sins, admitting specific things we have done and have failed to do that fall short of God’s glory so that we enjoy restored fellowship as forgiven sinners. But confession goes beyond our individual shortcomings. We also need to identify with the failures of our communities, acknowledging collective sin and structural evil.
Daniel offers a powerful example when he confesses the sin of his people as his own:
Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land. (Daniel 9: 4-6)
Even Daniel, a model of steadfast faith in the face of persecution, identified himself with those who turned away from God’s laws.
It is far too easy to overlook the need for confession, but this essential Christian practice reminds Christians to engage political life with humility and gratitude as forgiven sinners, not with self righteousness or self importance.
We can and should also come before God with lament, crying out to God with our deepest questions and frustrations. As Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson explain in their recent book The Justice Calling, prayers of lament allow us “to mourn and to wrestle with the pervasiveness of corruption and the overwhelming range of needs in our world. They invite us into prayers and cries and promises that can guide us as we wrestle with God.”
The Bible records many prayers of lament. Many of the prophets offered laments to God, including the entire Old Testament book devoted to Lamentations. Laments are the most common type of prayer recorded in the Psalms. Even Jesus himself lamented, as when he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Hoang and Johnson point to Habakkuk as a model. As they note, the prophet begins with lament, crying directly to God; he then stations himself to wait on God to respond; and finally he rejoices in his knowledge of God and trust in God’s goodness. Habakkuk begins with these words:
How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted. (Habakkuk 1:2-4)
By the end of the account, however, Habakkuk still sees great suffering and devastation, but his hope in God has been renewed. He prays:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)
Much has transpired in this election season that leaves us asking God “why.” The realities of injustice and suffering in our nation and around the world should cause us to lament. The practice of lament reminds us of God’s love, renewing our spirits so we can once again rejoice.
“Of course we should seek opportunities for civil discussion and debate, but we also need to be bringing our concerns and fears directly to God.”
Lament also makes us attuned to suffering, leading us to bring our requests before God. The turmoil of the election season highlights our need to pray for political leaders and candidates, our communities, our nation, and the world.
For Political Leaders
Scripture speaks directly about how we are to interact with those in power. Consider Paul’s words to Timothy:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
We are called to plead before God for political leaders, and we are called to thank God for them. Why? So we can live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness, and so we can please God who wants all people to be saved.
This call to prayer doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everything our political leaders do, and it leaves room for us to challenge views we think are wrong. From the context of the Roman Empire, Paul reminds us that our posture towards those in authority—if we voted for them or not, and if we plan to vote for them or not—must first of all be one of prayerful concern and thanksgiving.
This prayerful posture extends to candidates as well. This year the presidential candidates are particularly disliked. In poll after poll, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have garnered the highest negative ratings of any presidential candidates since pollsters started measuring favorability. Much talk this campaign season is about which candidate is the worst; many people speak of not voting for either.
Whatever we may think of the candidates, we need to be praying for them with sincerity. Episcopal rector Jonathan Mitchican stated this forcefully in a blogpost titled, “I Love Donald Trump.” After explaining some of his major objections to both presidential candidates, Mitchican says he has no choice but to love them both:
So how is it possible to love people like this? How can I say that I love people who so consistently thwart the moral imperatives of my faith?
Because I must. Because if I don’t love them, I’m failing to live up to the very same standards that I am decrying them for not meeting.
When the Bible tells us that we should love our neighbors, it is not a suggestion. God wants us to do more than just love people in a generic sense, loving the category of “neighbors” but not necessarily the individuals who fall within it. Scripture and the historic teaching of the Church are clear. We are to love each person as ourselves.
That includes our “enemies.” It includes people we dislike or find difficult. It certainly includes our political opponents.
The campaign is replete with hateful messages; we are bombarded with reasons to grow angry or fearful. Instead of taking the bait, we can pray for the candidates and their families, for their personal safety and wellbeing and for their growth in wisdom.
For the Problems Facing our Nation and World
News coverage of the election helps focus our attention on many of the problems facing the country and the wide range of issues elected officials need to address. Most of the issues debated in an election are those that are most complex and deeply rooted. Elected officials often disagree about the best way to address such problems because it usually isn’t clear what policies or proposals would be most effective.
As we follow current events, learn about domestic and international issues, and enter into conversations about them, take time to pray. Of course we should seek opportunities for civil discussion and debate, but we also need to be bringing our concerns and fears directly to God. As we pray about issues that seem so overwhelming, we acknowledge our dependence on Almighty God and our ultimate hope in the coming of his kingdom.
One final area of petition involves ourselves and our Christian witness in such divisive times. Instead of devoting our energy to winning arguments or scoring political points, let’s pray that we can be a witness by living worthy of the gospel.
Thinking about the election should prompt us to pray that we may be more deeply formed in godly virtues such as these listed in the letter to the Colossians:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)
If we are clothed with these virtues when we engage political issues and candidates, our humility will help others see the love of Christ. Elections matter, but our foremost concern should not be political victories. Our fundamental calling is to love God and neighbor; it’s not about winning or losing in earthly politics.
This election season has already seen record levels of anger, vitriol, and scorn. Join me in these final weeks and days of this election season with a renewed commitment to prayer.