I’ve been exploring “habits of the heart,” positive ways of approaching life that Christians can bring to bear on their lives as citizens in a democracy. The phrase was coined by French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville and was used in his classic book written in the 1830s, Democracy in America.
One of the reasons that US democracy worked, de Tocqueville said, was that because of their faith, Americans didn’t see freedom as a license for selfishness. They’d developed habits of the heart that kept selfishness from destroying their fledgling democracy.
So far, I’ve identified four habits that followers of Christ can bring to American civic and political life today that can help make democracy work now: living in confident humility, loving our neighbor, having a commitment to justice, and being ‘in’ but not ‘of’ this world.
Now I come to what may be, for the functioning of our world, the most important of the habits of the heart: prayer.
In November, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. People all over the world celebrated with the German people. They were reunited and their citizens in the east (along with the rest of Eastern Europe) were now free of oppressive Communism.
Many reasons were given for this astounding event. Some said that it was the inevitable result of Communism’s moral bankruptcy. Others claimed that Ronald Reagan’s policies had caused it. Still others pointed to the policy of “containment” first recommended by George Kennan in an article back in the 1940s, a policy that, with variations, was pursued by every US President from Harry Truman through George H.W. Bush.
Frankly, while those factors undoubtedly contributed to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and all it represented, I think that the biggest reason for Communism’s collapse was more subtle, more unseen, more powerful. I was aware of many people who had been praying for what happened in 1989: a group of young Catechism students at a church in northwestern Ohio, a Lutheran congregation standing astride the wall in East Berlin, and countless indivduals around the world. They and so many more had prayed, asking that the power of God would be employed as and when He saw fit to bring an end to Communism. I’m convinced that those prayers played the decisive role in bringing down the hated wall in Berlin.
Repeatedly, God’s book, the Bible, urges those who follow Him to pray, to invite Him to take care of the needs of the world. The Bible also urges people of faith to pray for those in government. This is remarkable because often, the rulers under which the original recipients of many of the Bible’s books and letters were people of faith living under tyrants.
Maybe God urges us to pray because of three big changes that I see prayer bringing. First, we are changed internally by our praying, our attitudes are transformed. Second, God takes our prayers as entry points into the lives and circumstances for which we pray, bringing change to bear. Third, God may change us in another way, using our prayers to motivate us to positive action.
Beyond all that, prayer allows us to have an impact on leaders and their decisions that we would never have through face-to-face meetings at the White House or on Capitol Hill. In our prayers, we can appoint the God we know through Jesus Christ as the chief counselor to presidents, prime ministers, and other leaders. And God will give better counsel to leaders than we could!
Of course, this world will never be perfect. And some day, its life (and its sins) will be brought to an end. But you and I can help make our communities, countries, and world operate at more optimal levels when we adopt my favorite habit of the heart, prayer.