Responses to the article in the Marietta Times to the National Day of Prayer in Marietta provide a window into a serious social problem. What problem? The problem that manifests as the various crises we face—financial crisis, budget crisis, drug and alcohol crises, environmental crisis, civility crisis, etc. That underlying problem is the crisis of faith. I hesitate to call it that because the word “faith” has been coopted by everyone to mean whatever they want it to mean. And the result is that it means practically nothing in the public square. Faith has become an empty form into which people can pour their own ideas, hopes and dreams.
Thus, it is necessary to define the problem more clearly in the hope of avoiding unnecessary misunderstanding. Of course, those who will not listen will continue to project their own misunderstandings into the conversation in the service of confusion and distrust.
The underlying problem is the failure to adequately or correctly understand the Bible, and therefore to fail to understand biblical Christianity. Is there a common version of Christianity among the many competing denominations? No, there isn’t. The denominations themselves continue to prove this point. But is there a common understanding of Christianity among the many faithful Christians? Yes, there is. Describing it is more difficult because it is like beauty in that it is difficult to explain but simple to recognize.
Here’s how it works: those with ears to hear and eyes to see know it when they hear it and see it. But those who don’t, don’t. Faithful Christians work to build and establish common ground and beneficial relationships among other faithful Christians. Unfaithful Christians and others sow discord. We can see it unfold in the comments to the Times’ article on the recent National Day of Prayer.
The first commenter said, “We can only hope these prayers will be answered speedily! Prayer is our only hope for our society and our nation. God help us all!” All faithful Christians will agree with this simple generic statement.
The next commenter cites Matthew 6:5 in order to criticize the participants who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” However, s/he paints with brushstrokes that are overly broad. How can this be determined? Because Jesus was not suggesting that prayer not take place in the synagogues. Nor was Jesus opposing public worship or prayer. Indeed, almost all of Jesus teaching and preaching was public—in the streets, if you will. The operative phrase in this verse is “that they may be seen by others.” Jesus was criticizing the hypocrites who pray for attention. So, if there were participants who were doing that, then this criticism would hit the mark. But to suggest that all public praying falls into this category is an error. Unfortunately, many people make this mistake because they read Scripture too shallowly.
The next commenter kicked this error further down the street. “If we teach our children how to think instead of what to think (as they do in church) there will no longer be any need for religion, as it should be.” Jesus Himself could have made this comment about the state of the synagogues of His own day. Indeed, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were guilty of this very thing! And Jesus intended to correct it. Unfortunately, this has proven to be a tenacious problem, and in fact many churches and Christians continue to make this error today. However, all churches and Christians do not make this error. So, again, this comment has overreached its understanding of churches and the Christians who inhabit them.
But in order to clarify himself, he added in the next comment: “Nothing fails like prayer!” Since no church teaches such a thing, this person must be speaking out of personal experience. And it is true, though contrary to popular opinion, that God does not answer all prayer. The biblically astute are reminded of Isaiah 59:2, which suggests that the problem of unanswered prayer belongs to those who pray, but not to God. Isaiah said, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” God also said to Jeremiah, “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you” (Jeremiah 7:16). Whose prayer does God not answer? Those who have turned their backs on Him. They won’t listen to Him, so He won’t listen to them.
This respondent then made his third consecutive comment: “For those of you who mistakenly believe there should be no seperation (sic) between church and state, maybe you should review The United States Constitution. The First Amendment,Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This is a legitimate concern, but there is not space here to deal with. However, it should be noted that separation of church and state does not mean the separation of religion and politics.
The next respondent quoted Frederick Douglass: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Douglass was a slave who escaped and became an active abolitionist. Douglass, a Christian and Sunday School teacher, learned that slavery was wrong from the Bible. The respondent seems to suggest that Douglass didn’t believe in prayer. Not so! Rather he understood that prayer without response (legs is futile. It wasn’t that Douglass didn’t pray, but that he put legs on his prayer.
But again, this is not at all what the responded intended to suggest. We see this from his other quote: “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day; give him a religion, and he’ll starve to death while praying for a fish ~ Anonymous.” Here the suggestion is that prayer is worse than useless because it interferes with common sense. If prayer interferes with common sense or with one’s ability to respond to God or to one’s own situation, then this criticism is valid. But where it is valid, the kind of prayer in use is neither biblical nor faithful. This comment comes out of a misunderstanding of prayer.
At this point faithful Christians must brush off such attempts to sow discord, confusion and distrust. Faithful Christians must not respond in kind, must not get angry or lash out in response. Much in these comments is true, yet they display a faulty understanding of the Bible, Christ, Christianity, prayer and the church. Thus, the proper response is not anger, frustration or retaliation. Rather, the proper response is to find sufficient love and patience to take the time to correct the errors and misunderstandings.
I will often say to those who identify themselves as atheists, “If I believed about God what you believe about God, I’d be an atheist too! But if you want to be an atheist with integrity, then you need to deny the only God who actually exists, and not the god of your imagination.” Most atheists don’t understand biblical Christianity, and have responded to some imaginary or false idea about God. Such people don’t need to be shunned, they need to be educated. Of course, they are free to deny God to their heart’s desire. But they really should deny the real God of the Bible and not the false gods of their imaginations. And no one but faithful Christians can show them the difference.