Whatever our feelings might be toward a given leader, emotions are fleeting; habits endure. Here are three holy habits to develop as citizens who follow Jesus, no matter what country we call home:
1) Pray for leaders. As missionaries, my wife and I often let our supporters know specific ways that they can pray for us. We know that the task God has given us is too big on our own. If we are to make it, we need teammates, people calling our name before the throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16, Ephesians 6:19). In the same way, Scripture asks us to pray for “kings and for everyone who is in authority, so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity (1 Timothy 2:2, CEB). The task of civic leaders is heavy and often thankless. Are we in the habit of praying for them?
Sometimes it’s hard to know specifically how to pray for leaders. Here’s a public prayer I recently offered:
Lord God, we pray that you will guide our new President. Give him your wisdom and self-control. May he seek the good of others and listen to those who are marginalized. Grant that he may not depend upon himself but upon you in all the important decisions that he must make. Surround him with those who will have the courage to say what must be said. Make his heart tender that he might lead our nation in a directon that pleases you. In Christ’s name we pray, AMEN.
2) Call on leaders to do what is right. So important to the Bible’s message is doing what is right by the poor, the forgotten, and the powerless that this concern is woven like a golden strand throughout both Old and New Testaments. Deuteronomy 27:19a (NIV) warns: “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Likewise, Amos was a simple farmer from the village of Tekoa, near Bethlehem. In the 8th century BC, God sent him on a mission to Bethel. There, he railed against the abuses of Israel’s elite, insisting: “A lion has roared: who will not fear? The LORD God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8, CEB). His message – while addressed to many nations – was also for the leaders of his own people, Israel’s elite. He accused them of crushing the “weak” and the “needy” (4:1), offenses that he later in the chapter warns will result in domination by foreign powers, famine, drought, and disease.
Jesus modeled this kind of prophetic spirit in Matthew 23:37-39 when he wept over Jerusalem for having killed the prophets and having rejected his own message. Earlier in the chapter, he condemned the teachers of the law and the Pharisees not only for their hypocrisy but for having forgotten “the more important matters of the law,” including “justice, peace, and faith” (23:24, CEB).
While praying for our leaders is crucial, it is insufficient. We as prompted by God must go further, raising our voice on behalf of those unjustly targeted. Amos and Jesus give us a pattern for responsibly engaging our leaders, calling on them to do what is right. Moments arise when – to use the words of Dallas Willard – a “holy discontent” wells up inside and we must prophesy or else be disobedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Who are the “fatherless, the foreigner, and the widow” in our day? Who are the citizens around us who are neglected, even oppressed? There comes a time when Jesus followers must speak up, voicing our opposition to policies and decisions made by our leaders that crush the weak and needy among us. To do less is to deny who we are as Christ followers.
3) Be the change. Beyond prayers and speaking up for what is right, a final holy habit comes from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This outlook is implied by Paul in Romans 2:21b-22a (NIV): “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” We cannot expect the behavior of our leaders to be exemplary if our own conduct is sinful. Instead, Paul elsewhere calls us to be “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” (Philippians 2:15a, NIV), to be “people who shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16a, CEB).
A pastor in a large cathedral in Nairobi recently invited the police to come to a special service. At a key moment, more than 200 officers came forward and received a prayer for God’s safety and blessing. Though later during his sermon he did not hesitate to admonish them to act with intergrity at work, he reminded everyone present that the character of the police and all our leaders is merely a reflection of the character of a people as a whole. The leaders produced are a direct product of the community that produces them.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of “self-purification.” As civil rights marchers faced police brutality in the 1960s, he knew that hate could not be overcome by hate, so instead he called his people to non-violence. Self-purification meant rehearsing behind closed doors how to passively resist when publicly beaten by a billy club, dragged by the arm or aggressively handcuffed.
King’s self-purification was applied in a specific circumstance during the civil rights movement, but what would happen if followers of Jesus applied it more generally? He knew that they had to be the change. If they wanted non-violent police, then they themselves had to be non-violent. Likewise, if we desire public leaders who are righteous, what private sinful practices must we allow God to eliminate in our own lives? A transformation of the public realm must begin in the private realm, yet long experience teaches us that human beings are woefully indadequate to make such changes in their own lives. Only God’s power can do that! (2 Cor. 5:17, Romans 12:1-2; 1 Thess. 5:23-24).
Praying for leaders, calling them to do what is right, and modeling needed change are three holy habits for citizens who follow Jesus. God may lead us to develop others, depending upon the situation. Nonetheless, no matter who occupies positions of authority over us, may these practices help God’s people live with winsomeness and integrity.
Images used in the essay are in the public domain.