Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Thought Experiment #5: Praying for Personal Safety

Once or twice in the last year and a half I’ve heard a Christian say something to the effect that they are trusting the Lord to keep them safe from the coronavirus. I suppose that is true of all of us to one degree or another, but the comment got me thinking: How high a priority should our physical safety have in our prayers?

Let’s dismiss binary thinking on this subject right at the front door. I cannot see how praying for better circumstances can ever be categorically wrong when it is accompanied by a heartfelt “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours.” It not a question of good vs. bad use of prayer time, but a question concerning degrees of good. We are looking to have the very best priorities in prayer, right? Ideally, we should be asking for the things Christ himself would have asked of his Father under the same circumstances.

That’s a very high bar, and we will not reach it all the time in prayer, but it should certainly be our goal in coming into the presence of God.

So then, how highly do the scriptures teach us to prioritize our own physical safety?

The Lord’s Prayer

First, let’s consider the model prayer given by the Lord to his disciples. The only line in the traditional rendering of the Lord’s Prayer that might be considered a request for safety is “deliver us from evil”. But with what sort of evil is the Lord most concerned?

Personally, I don’t believe the Lord included physical safety in his model prayer. “Deliver us from evil” is not a stand-alone request. It begins with the Greek conjunction alla, translated “but” in English, which connects it to the previous request, “lead us not into temptation”. That strongly suggests a limitation on the scope of our interpretation of “deliver us”. The Lord’s primary concern here, I think, is that his servants recognize the importance of appealing to heaven for help in dealing with spiritual lassitude, overconfidence, independence, the urge to compromise the truth, despair, indifference, apathy, a judgmental or unforgiving spirit, and other states of mind which might cause our actions, thoughts or conversation to reflect poorly on the name of Christ. These are the evils that endanger us in meaningful ways. “Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.”

So no, we do not find a high priority placed on personal physical safety in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Prayers of the Early Church

As anyone who has ever studied the imprecatory psalms can attest, we will not find out much about Christian prayer priorities from the Old Testament, but we may find out how the Lord’s disciples interpreted his instruction on prayer by looking at the way they prayed when they gathered together after he was glorified. Mark Moore supplies a handy list of the 32 times prayer is mentioned in the book of Acts.

Few of these references give us the actual words of the disciples’ prayers. One exception is the believers’ prayer for boldness in Acts 4, after which the Holy Spirit shook the house in which they were gathered, confirming they were on the right track. Here, far from being concerned with maintaining their physical safety, the believers were praying for courage to continue putting themselves at risk in light of the threats they were facing. God granted their prayer. As a consequence of that boldness, some were killed and others arrested. We do read that “earnest prayer was made for [Peter] to God by the church”, but can only speculate as to the nature of their prayers for him. For example, were they more concerned that Peter be released unharmed, or more concerned for his courage and testimony under great spiritual pressure? Only the Lord knows. Moreover, even if they were prioritizing the safety of an important leader of the early church in prayer, that would only tell us something about the importance of praying for the safety of others, not our own.

In fact, the only unambiguous reference to physical safety on the entire list is found in chapter 27, which upon closer examination turns out not to be concerned with the prayers of Christians at all, but rather with the prayers of sailors to their pagan gods on a stormy Adriatic Sea.

So no, you don’t find much obvious concern for their own physical safety in the prayers of the early saints either. If it was indeed a priority for them, the Holy Spirit did not see fit to pass that information along to us.

Prayer in the Epistles

The word most frequently translated “safe”, “salvation”, “save” or “preserve” in the New Testament is sōzō. In ordinary Greek, it is most commonly used to refer to physical safety. In New Testament usage, however, it is remarkable how many references are to various sorts of spiritual “salvation” rather than physical. When the writers of the epistles mention their own prayers or make prayer requests, it is this sort of salvation that is usually in view. Even Paul’s expression of confidence to Timothy that “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom” is best read as referring to spiritual safety rather than physical. How else do we explain the reference to bringing Paul into the kingdom? (Side note: It is almost universally accepted by historians that Paul was martyred for his faith. If this is the case, then any request he may have made for physical safety would have to be filed under “prayers answered in the negative”.)

Thanks to the hard work of Kevin Halloran, a complete list of Paul’s prayers may be found here. Here at last we find two references to prayers for personal physical safety: one in Romans (“Pray that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea”) and one in 2 Thessalonians (“pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men”). But what is far more impressive about seeing a list of Paul’s prayers in one location is his consistent emphasis on salvation, spiritual growth, activity in sharing the faith, unity, comfort, enlightenment, strength, fearlessness, insight, love, fruit, sanctification, faith, encouragement and, most frequently of all, grace. Compared to the staggering volume of spiritually-centered requests for others, the two requests for personal safety seem almost out of place.

The explanation may be found in the motivations for those two requests. Both originate in Paul’s concern for the work of the Lord rather than fear of personal injury or death (“so that by God’s will I may come to you”, and “so that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored”).

Once again, the writers of the New Testament are almost never concerned with prioritizing their own physical safety in prayer.

The Thought Experiment

So then, what place should the coronavirus have in our prayers during this time? What should we be praying for?

Here’s a crazy thought experiment: Supposing you knew with 100% certainty that succumbing to a bad bout of COVID (a thing that is actually statistically extremely rare, notwithstanding the constant media noise about “the pandemic”) would give your relatives an occasion to share the gospel with the unsaved and to show the world Christian hope in resurrection — opportunities they would not have any other way. Supposing you knew for sure that the Lord would use your departure from this life to bring your unsaved friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members under conviction of sin and make them aware of their pressing need of Christ. Suppose some — or maybe even just one — of these people you love might actually come to know the Lord as you do and be saved for all eternity.

Under those circumstances, would you be quite so disturbed about checking out? How, if at all, might that conviction change your prayer life in the present?

I can’t say for sure what might happen if I were to leave this world tomorrow, but I hope with all my heart that my saved relatives would milk my “untimely” exit for absolutely everything the Lord could get out of it. Wouldn’t you? I know you would.

But let’s not assume such an extreme scenario. Suppose you knew that surviving an unpleasant bout of the virus would give you opportunities to share your faith with others that you don’t have today. Would you be praying to be specially and miraculously spared an infection that so many around us are being afflicted with, or would you be asking the Lord to use you in any way that pleases him, whatever the circumstances or cost to you personally?

I hope the question answers itself.

Kingdom Priorities

So then, if we are going to spend a lot of time praying about the coronavirus, let’s concentrate on the aspects of its impact on society (and on our own lives) that are most of concern to the Lord. Let’s pray for hope in a time when many are giving up. Let’s pray for the courage to boldly step up and serve others when the temptation to hide in the basement with a laptop is epidemic. Let’s pray for daily chances to share the gospel with men and women who are devastated by the changes in society and despairing of the future. Let’s pray for sensitivity to those who have lost and are losing their jobs, and for opportunities to share with the needy in the name of Christ. Let’s pray for a more focused and faithful church in a time when so many are abandoning fellowship, and that the lessons the Holy Spirit is trying to teach the people of God in all this would not be lost on us.

In short, let’s put the kingdom first, and our concern for personal safety well down our list of prayer priorities ... say, right about where the first century church placed theirs.

No comments :

Post a Comment