When the pagans call us to prayer

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Steve Kneale has written here with a typically robust response to the Archbishop of York’s call for a national day of prayer. In his article Steve rightly highlights the problems with such calls, that there is something peculiar about calling people to pray to a God that you do not believe in and that when the call is made in the context of unbiblical Christianity is is likely to do more harm than good.

Last year I wrote about a previous call for prayer explaining why I supported that specific call.  However, I am not writing here to disagree with Steve. I was and am cautious about such things. However, I could see a case at the time, albeit a narrow and very specific one. If the call to prayer comes with a clear explanation about the Triune God we need to pray to and the nature of the prayer we need, not for the removal of the virus but a recognition of our finiteness, fallenness and need for salvation, then it can be part of our witness.

However, when I look at Scripture, I see something different going on. The best example of a call to prayer is found in Jonah 1. There you will see that it is the pagans who cry out to their gods and then call upon the believer to pray with them, not the other way round. The believer’s response is not to join in the religiosity but to point then to the way of salvation.

The risk is that a call to prayer becomes part of a sequence of evidence that Christians do not in fact know how to respond to a situation like this. It started with some (including evangelicals) talking in hushed learned voices about mystery and the very real danger of Christians speaking with certainty.  The truth is the opposite and we do know what is going on. That’s not because we have some special inner mystical track to discover if God is bringing a specific judgement or about to usher in revival. Rather, it is that we know that plagues and pandemics are part and parcel of living in a fallen world and remind us of our sin. There is a response commanded to this in Scripture, to repent, believe and be baptised.

That’s why I am happy for us to call people to pray, just like Peter called Peter to pray at Pentecost. It is essential however that we know who we are calling them to pray to and what we are calling them to say.