On the National Day of Prayer, I could’t help but think about Paul’s advice to Timothy on the subject of prayer. Paul says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1-2, TNIV). Of course, there is a certain degree of inclusiveness in saying that these different types of prayers are to be made for “everyone,” but I am particularly drawn to the group singled out by Paul: kings and all those in authority.
In the past, I’ve identified the authorities for whom I am to be praying as those that have specific authority over me in whatever place in life I’m in. As a kid, that meant my parents, my pastor, my principal, my teachers and so on. When I started working as a teenager, I added my boss to the list. At some point, law enforcement workers got introduced. And now, as an adult, I think of my state representatives, my senators and my president.
My mind hasn’t changed as to whether or not I’m supposed to be praying for these people, and I do my best to stay as consistent as I can in doing so, but when I look at the list above I recognize one glaring problem: I’m usually only concerned with praying for those who have authority directly over me. When I go back to the passage in first Timothy, I don’t think that Paul makes this distinction. He never tells Timothy to pray for those in authority over him. In fact, he specifically says “kings and all those in authority.”
The place that I’ve found this command especially challenging is when it comes to praying for those whose politics or agendas are contrary to those with which I agree. It’s one thing to pray for the president and senators of this country, some of whom I oppose and some of whom I support. It is quite another thing for me to pray for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, or Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. It’s one thing for me to pray for the pastor and leaders at my church. It’s another thing to pray for the pastor and leaders of fringe churches who believe and celebrate that our soldiers are being killed in the Iraq War as a sign of God’s punishment on the United States’ “embracing” of homosexuality. But when I consider that Paul’s letter to Timothy was probably written under the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, whose atrociousness makes Ahmadnijad’s or Chavez’s pale in comparison, I can’t help but think that I’m supposed to be praying for these authorities, too.
I feel even more convicted when I think of the way that I have prayed for other authorities—when I have prayed for them—in the past. I don’t think that it’s an uncommon practice for American Christians to pray for the authorities that we like and to pray against those that we don’t like. When I do pray for the leaders of fringe churches or the leaders of abortion rights groups, my natural tendency is to pray that God will take away their power, that He’ll unseat them. But the word that Paul uses here (huper) really means “on behalf of.” It’s the same word Jesus uses in Matthew when He tells us to pray for our enemies, and that Paul uses in Romans when he says that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we pray. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that I’m supposed to be praying for these authorities—that they will acknowledge Christ as their savior, that their lives will be changed for the good of God and that they will rule in such a way that the gospel can be freely preached in a way that people come to the Lord.
This last point is what I think the point of Paul’s command to Timothy comes down to. He says that the outcome of praying for those in authority is “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” (2:2-4).
We are to pray for kings and all those in authority, first and foremost, so that God’s Word can be preached freely. Not so we can establish one political system over another, not so the morality of which the Holy Spirit convicts us can reign supreme in our legal system, but so the message of God’s love and salvation through Jesus can be preached freely, without inhibition, to the whole world. It’s the Great Commission, and, if we are truly serious about being missional as a generation, this is a command that I don’t think we can afford to ignore.