What, How, and Why We Pray for Our Nation
As disciples of Jesus, should we regularly pray for our nation? In 1 Timothy 2:1-4, the apostle Paul urged public prayers in church for public leaders. He described these as a practice that “is good and pleases God.” He encouraged that we pray “for kings and all those in authority” as a way of seeking peace for everybody and walking in holiness before God. Moreover, Paul reminds us that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all people,” so that even though we should pray for our nation, it is far from the only nation that we should care about or pray for.
From this fascinating passage in 1 Timothy, we learn some rich insights about how to pray for the nation we find ourselves part of. Here’s what, how, and why we can pray for our nation from 1 Timothy 2:1-4:
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
What to Pray for Our Nation
“All people.” Before asking what, from this passage, we can learn about praying for whatever nation we happen to live in, let’s pause. This passage zooms out pretty far, far past the boundaries of one nation. In the NIV version of 1 Timothy 2:1-4, Paul uses the phrase “all people” three times:
- “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people.” (2:1)
- “God our Savior…wants all people to be saved.” (2:3b-4a)
- “Christ Jesus…gave himself as a ransom for all people.” (2:5b-6a)
That said, Paul also encourages us in this passage to pray specifically “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” The implication from words like “kings” and “we” is that we’re praying for the political leaders in our context. This would include public officials even up to the highest-tier leaders in our nation (“kings”).
“The implication from words like ‘kings’ and ‘we’ is that we’re praying for the political leaders in our context.”
And Paul also seems to be encouraging church-wide prayers. Paul’s writing this letter to Timothy, the evangelist of the church in Ephesus, and he’s writing it to give him instructions on “how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God” (3:15). In chapter 2, Paul keeps the theme of prayer going, giving further details on how prayer in the public gathering ought to be conducted (“lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing,” 2:8).
So, when it comes to these church-wide prayers for national leaders, what should we pray? Paul uses four words to describe the types of prayers we ought to pray. Although the first three can function synonymously, there seem to be some shades of nuance in all four words:
- Petitions (Gk. deesis) – requesting something in particular
- Prayers (Gk. proseuche) – general word for praying
- Intercession (Gk. enteuxis) – bringing an appeal on somebody’s behalf
- Thanksgiving (Gk. eucharistia) – expressing gratitude
“That’s a pretty vibrant description for the kinds of prayers which, if we do them, can sometimes feel stale and obligatory.”
That’s a pretty vibrant description for the kinds of prayers which, if we do them, can sometimes feel stale and obligatory. “We pray for our leaders that you would give them wisdom” isn’t a bad prayer in itself. But surely four such nuanced words as Paul gives should encourage us to pray with some creativity. Specific requests. Particular names. And let’s not miss the very distinctive attitude with which we make these requests: we pray with thanksgiving (more on that below). Paul’s drawing of our prayers for our leaders is drawn in full color with rich detail.
So, to answer our first question—what to pray for our nation—here’s a helpful summary:
What to pray for our nation: We bring God specific requests on behalf of particular people.
How to Pray for Our Nation
So, how do we pray for our nation? Here are some takeaways from 1 Timothy 2:1-4 on how we can pray for the leaders of our nation:
We pray widely
Here’s another “all” phrase it’s easy to forget: we are to pray for “all those in authority” (2:2). There are always going to be public officials we have trouble liking. Maybe we feel they’re doing a bad job. Maybe we sense that they oppose our faith. Are we really supposed to pray for them? Pray for them to get ousted, sure. But actually pray for them?
Really, it’s no different from what the New Testament teaches us over and over: It’s not our job to select which people are worthy of our love. We are to be like our Father in heaven, “who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45b), and that goes for our prayers too. To our tendency to get partisan in our prayers, Paul gets persistent with “all…all…all.”
“It’s not our job to select which people are worthy of our love.”
We pray gratefully
This one is fascinating. Telling us to pray prayers of “thanksgiving…for kings and all those in authority” feels strange considering that Paul himself was being constantly mistreated by “kings and all those in authority.” Here are a few of the things that went terribly wrong for Paul because of people in authority (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-29 for the full list):
- Imprisoned multiple times
- 39 lashes (5x)
- Beaten with rods (3x)
- Shipwrecked (3x)
- Pelted with stones
The first conversion of a Roman emperor to Christianity was still hundreds of years in the future. Paul was telling a persecuted minority to pray prayers of thanksgiving in the context of living under hostile leaders. Amazing.
“Paul was telling a persecuted minority to pray prayers of thanksgiving in the context of living under hostile leaders.”
We pray peacefully
The church in Ephesus Paul was writing to in this letter knew what it was like to be targeted by intolerance and belligerence. When the impact of the gospel began to hit the revenue of idol makers, they struck back. An influential silversmith lathered a crowd into a riotous mob which became so intense that Paul had to leave the city (Acts 19:23-20:1).
Against this backdrop, it’s notable that the prayers Paul urges the Ephesian Christians to pray carry no hint of hitting back. They’re peaceful, not pugnacious. We pray “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” There’s evangelism all over this passage (see the next section), but there’s no militancy here.
So, to answer our second question—how to pray for our nation—here’s a helpful summary:
How to pray for our nation: We pray for our leaders, whether we like them or not, with grateful hearts which desire peace.
Why We Pray for Our Nation
In looking for why we ought to pray for our national leaders, there’s a really helpful Greek preposition (ina) which means “in order that.” We offer petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving for kings all those in authority in order that (ina) “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (2:2b).
The idea is that, when we’re given the freedom to simply be Christians, this peaceful and quiet existence is conducive to our growing in godliness and holiness. Now, it’s true that the extreme opposite of persecution—making the church a favored wing of the government—typically results in a compromised, cartoonish church. Somewhere in the middle, there seems to be a sweet spot Paul is referring to here, where the church can go about its business in quiet and peace. Although the church can grow in astounding ways while persecuted, it would be unwise to romanticize the Nero years any more than we should romanticize the Constantine years. As the book of Revelation points out, Satan wields both persecution and seduction to try to defeat the church.
“Satan wields both persecution and seduction to try to defeat the church.”
So, we are to pray for our nation so that we might live peaceful and quiet lives. But we shouldn’t assume that peaceful and quiet translates to domesticated and privatized. The ultimate goal—which we see in both this passage and Paul’s life mission—is that more and more people will come to faith in Jesus. Paul continues explaining why we pray for our nation’s leaders:
“…that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:2b-4)
Sometimes we’re tempted to make our nation the one main thing on our minds. As in, if we can just get our political party’s platform enacted for a few years, then our nation will be healthy, and we can live satisfied lives. And it’s true that seeking the good of our nation is in view in this passage; it’s reminiscent of Jeremiah 29:7’s “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you.” Yet our intent in these prayers is so much bigger and richer than that! Our nation is far from the one thing that should be on our minds. In fact, there are two “number one’s” in 1 Timothy 2:1-4, and neither of them is anything close to a person’s nation:
“For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (2:5-6a).
What ought most to be on our hearts and minds as we pray, hope, strategize, and dream? That God might use us to increase the population of our truest home: heaven.
So to answer our third question—why we pray for our nation—here’s a helpful summary: