First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
For this country, its President, for all civil authorities and for the armed forces, let us pray to the Lord. (From the Great Litany)
St Paul urges us to pray for our civil authorities. This has nothing to do with whether they are Christian or not – we are to pray for them regardless of their faith or lack thereof. It also isn’t about whether we agree with their politics or not. Certainly Paul was writing at a time when the thought of an Emperor being Christian wasn’t even imagined as possible – yet he expected Christians to pray for their civil leaders – and certainly he knew the threat the Roman Empire represented to Christians. This is not about praying that the politicians succeed in their political endeavors – St Paul wasn’t praying that the Roman Empire crush Christianity or force Christians to conform to imperial politics. It is not the case that he advocated praying for the Emperor because the Emperor’s politics and policies agreed with St Paul’s own agenda, because they didn’t. He was praying for a person who has a very particular role in society as its ruler – that the leadership would practice peace toward the Christians so that the Christians could live the Gospel.
In this year of our U.S. presidential election, we continue to pray for the President no matter whether he wins or losses the election. We should be praying for all the candidates themselves, regardless of who wins. We aren’t praying that they succeed in accomplishing their political agenda. We are praying that they might find their way to godliness – that they may be open to doing God’s will rather than their own political agenda. We pray that they will enact policies that enable us to grow in godliness, faithfulness and the love for God. Note in the Great Litany we pray for the president and all civil authority, but in that petition we leave it to God to decide how to show His mercy on our president and the civil authorities. We leave it up to God to decide whether His mercy means favor or opposition for the civil authorities. The petition is not asking that they accomplish their political agendas, but only that God will be merciful to them, and through them to us. A prayer the priest recites in St Basil’s Liturgy makes this abundantly clear: “Remember, O Lord, this country and all civil authorities: grant them a secure and lasting peace; speak good things into their hearts concerning your Church and all your people, that we, in their tranquility, may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness and sanctity.” When we pray in the Spirit for our president, the congress, the supreme court or for any civil authority, we aren’t telling God to make them succeed in their political agenda (even if we agree with that agenda or those policies). What we want and need from civil authority is that they be at peace and that they see the church at prayer as an essential blessing for the country and allow us to obey the Gospel commandments. We want the government to act peaceably towards us so that we, in their tranquility, may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness and sanctity. The prayer is not “allow us each to do whatever we want” but allow us to be holy as God commands – do not impose on us behaviors which are ungodly and unholy. The only political agenda we are pushing is that our civil leaders be granted a secure peace so that the entire world, including us Christians, can live in peace, godliness and sanctity. That attitude in prayer means allowing the Gospel to guide our prayers for our politicians. Political partisanship is not part of our prayer – God’s peace is.
But first, we must each change our own hearts (Repent!) so that we ourselves strive for godliness in our own hearts, minds, homes and lives. Only when we embrace holiness can we pray properly for civil authority. If we allow our political passions to govern our prayers, we will not pray in a way acceptable to God. St John Cassian quotes a fellow monk, Isaac, regarding this:
“When the soul is solidly rooted in this peacefulness, when it is freed of the bonds of every carnal urge, when the unshaking thrust of the heart is toward the one supreme Good, then the words of the apostle will be fulfilled. ‘Pray without cease,’ he said (1 Thess 5:17). ‘In every place lift up pure hands, with no anger and no rivalry‘ (1 Tim 2:8). Sensibility is, so to speak, absorbed by purity. It is reshaped in the likeness of the spiritual and angelic so that all its dealings, all its activity will be prayer, utterly pure, utterly without tarnish.” (CONFERENCES, p 106)
St Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:8 : “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling…” Note the change of heart we need to pray as Christians – without anger, quarreling or arguments. That is how we are to pray for the president and all political leaders. So if our hearts are full of anger, resentment, hatred, bitterness, then we cannot pray as we ought or for what we ought. Until we rid ourselves of such stumbling blocks, we will not be offering a prayer acceptable to God. The election gives each of us plenty of opportunity to cleanse our hearts and minds and gain control of our passions so that we can pray in all godliness and sanctity.
Many have strong reactions to elections and candidates – especially against the ones they dislike or disagree with. As Christians, we are not to be governed by these passions, rather we are to be governed by the peace of Christ. Our prayer life is not governed by the election or campaigns or polls, rather our prayer life is governed by Christ and our hope is that our politicians will not be blinded by their political agendas to God’s love for all. After all we are commanded by Christ to love and pray even for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). We aren’t commanded to make enemies of anyone, so if we allow our political views to turn others into enemies, then we aren’t living the Gospel commands – rather we are disobeying Christ, which for us is an evil itself. Each of us as Christians is to bring the peace of Christ to our attitude toward politics, politicians and the election. We are not to let the political pundits control our passions, but we are to make each thought and feeling subject to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As Christians, “though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)
When we can control our own emotions and political passions (and not everyone else’s!) then we can pray as Christians for the president and all civil authority. If we allow political parties and advertisements to flame our passions, hatreds, anxieties, bitterness, frustrations, anger, we fail to make Christ, the King of Peace, the Lord of our hearts, minds and souls. Instead of Jesus Christ as Lord, we allow ourselves to become slaves to our passions and to those who can incite us to sin. Advice that should be followed at all times but especially during an election, are these words of St Paul:
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:6-9)