A friend recently wrote on her blog, wondering about why we were not standing against the virus in prayer, and it made me pause to think. Normally I am fairly gung-ho about mountain-moving intercession, and I'd have expected my own response to be a whole-hearted "yes", forging into it with commands in the Name of Jesus.
But I felt a "Quaker 'stop'" on this one, and it's taken me a few days to figure out why. Having done so, I thought I'd write down my musings on the subject here, especially as I am seeing posts sprouting and proliferating to call Christians to prayer.
Please bear in mind that I may be completely wrong; but for what it's worth, here is my mind on the matter just now.
There are some principles to be observed in effective intercession, and the first one is that you don't just pile in. You stop first, to ascertain what the nub of the problem is, and — this is most important — you scry into the situation with your best spiritual eyes, asking the Holy Spirit's help, to determine the mind of God before you pray into any particular direction.
We find the guidance for Christian prayer in the New Testament, looking at what Jesus said and how he prayed, and noting how the apostles and the early church prayed.
Jesus said (in John's gospel) he did nothing except what he saw the Father do. This is important when you pray. You look to see what the Father is doing, and you pray with that.
James in his epistle said, "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." Ultimately, the righteous man is Jesus, not you or me, and Jesus prays for us — with power and with effect — so we can be confident about that. Jesus came to open the new and living Way between heaven and earth, and he is at the heaven end interceding for us. If understanding that doesn't give us hope and peace, I don't know what will! However, we are made in the image of God and we are the younger brothers and sisters in the family of Jesus, so in a somewhat diluted way our prayers are also powerful and effective — which means we should be specific and clear in what we pray. So we first look to see what the Father is doing to check we are rightly aligned, and then we can go for it like a thunderbolt.
If you can't figure out what God is doing, you can always pray that the purposes of God will be fulfilled in this situation. But if you can't see the spiritual flow, don't just decide what you think it ought to be — hold your fire. If, for instance, a person is dying, their passage out of this world can be considerably impeded and made a lot bumpier than it should have been if thirty people in their church are all blocking their way with prayer. It's a powerful thing, it should be done advisedly. The dying person can be carried out serenely and triumphantly, borne up on a current of prayer that smoothes the way and floats their journey home with golden light. The important thing is to have the spiritual vision to determine which way the boat of their soul is headed — towards life or death? Then you can pray with their spiritual calling and direction for this moment in time, and not impede it.
What is God saying? What is the direction and spiritual condition of the person for whom you are praying? What is happening (truly, not apparently)? Where is grace flowing? Find out first, and pray with that.
How do we find out what God is saying? The intentions of God are for peace and kindness, for love and shalom, for the wellbeing of creation, for social justice, for the relief of suffering and the relief of poverty. We discover the mind of God in the teachings of Jesus, and also in the Law and the Prophets — and "all Scripture", remember, "is divinely inspired and useful" (Paul to Timothy).
If you look at the prophets, you will find they all face in the same direction, essentially bring the same message, which boils down to two things: living with reverence for God, which is outworked in social justice.
If you have a situation where the people live without reverence, with no concern for the poor, without social justice, with no hospitality to the stranger — unfortunately those things have to be addressed first, because those get in the way of facing down their adversities in prayer. You can expect adversity if you build walls to shut out refugees, asset strip whole nations, keep the poor in cages on the borders, drop bombs on other people's countries, enrich billionaires at the expense of huge numbers of poor and struggling citizens, and leave the homeless to sleep on the streets; and if lies pour from your mouth in a constant stream.
If you look at the covenants God makes, and also at the original blessing of the human race, you can't help but notice that God is in a covenant relationship with all the creatures of the earth, and also that God set us — humanity — the task of stewarding creation. If, as stewards of creation, we set about greedily stripping out the body of creation as though it were one massive store cupboard, ruining, poisoning, despoiling and destroying, you can expect adversity, because such behaviour is irreverent and flies in the face of God. As George Herbert memorably said, "Who spits against heaven, it falls in his face."
We also have to bear in mind that what comes to us in life is God's gift. All of it. As Isaiah said to Cyrus of Persia who thought differently, thought there was a bad god and a good god at war against one another, "I create weal and I create woe . . . I am the Lord and there is no other."
Jesus, as I'm sure you remember, paused in Gethsemane to seek the mind of God, prayed hesitantly, "If it be thy will let this cup pass from me," but then saw clearly what the Father was doing and accepted it resolutely: "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done."
And if we look back at the stories of Moses and Pharaoh, we see the plagues of Egypt that mounted up and up and up all the while Pharaoh pursued his opportunistic path of enslaving and exploiting. Those plagues were God's gift and Pharaoh's free choice. Once he changed his ways, the plagues stopped. Organising a national day of prayer would have availed him nothing, because the plagues came from God.
Before we start to pray for our current situation, we'd do well to stop and look at Isaiah 58.1-12. For our prayers to be powerful and effective, they have to come from a place of righteousness. That passage makes clear what righteousness is, and there are some glaring contrasts with the ways of the Western world.
My personal opinion is that, despite the death toll, this pandemic is a relatively gentle wake-up call to us. If we heed the good advice we have been given, staying at home socially isolated to minimise our viral load, we can soften the impact of it so that those worst affected can receive the treatment and care they need. We have already been given, then, the guidance we need to address the situation.
So — what should we pray? In which spiritual direction should we face?
It seems to me that this new challenge cannot be separated or drawn out from the bundle of challenges we face in our day. The problems of humanity come from:
- Overconsumption of Earth's resources and failure to regenerate the land and live sustainably and reverently, holding sacred, as its stewards, the creation that stands in a covenant relationship with God.
- Greed and oppression, flouting our spiritual calling to live simply and humbly and to work for the common good; hoarding wealth and aggressively seeking power, dominating others instead of loving them. Inequality is, of itself, a social ill. We need to address it. "What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
- War. War is wrong. In all circumstances. It is never the right solution. Sometimes we are called to peaceful resistance, but war is in all cases destructive, an agent of misery and sorrow, a pestilence of its own. Our enemy is not flesh and blood, says St Paul.
If we fix these things, our lives will be blessed. If we don't, then every pestilence that comes our way — and they will, in steadily increasing strength until we are wiped out — will be the voice of God to us.
So if you are a praying person, and if your church is gathering to pray, scry into the situation before you begin. The correct prayer for this particular predicament is not a spiritual commandment to the virus to stop right there — it's a crying out to God for mercy because we are mired up to our necks in sin. If we repent, if we begin to adopt the ways that renew and heal the Earth, if we beat the guns into plowshares and release the captives we keep cruelly in cages on the borders, if we offer homes and food and medicine to the refugees who have fled from poverty, violence, persecution and starvation, if we begin to live humbly under the fear of God, loving our neighbour and having compassion on the needs of humanity and working for the wellbeing of creation — then a) God will hear our prayer and b) that prayer will be one of thanksgiving for bounty, contentment and peace.
That's what I think anyway — I also believe it to be the mind of God, which is why in this particular situation I think coming against the virus as if it were an evil entity is contra-indicated.
In the meantime I continue to pray for medical staff and those who care for our needs (for food, medicine, emergency provisions of all kinds), for the sick and the dying and all those who are anxious and afraid, that God will have mercy on them and draw close to them, strengthen them, bring them peace, and allow them in to the joy of salvation.
I pray for you, that this day you may shelter in the peace of God and find the security of his love. I pray that however and whenever your death may come, it will be gentle and dignified and you will meet it without fear — and I pray that also for myself.
Be blessed, choose wisely, stay at home if you can, and may you walk in the peace of God this day.