02 August 2022

Let the church 𝘯𝘰𝘵 say amen.

Ever been in this situation? You’re at some Christian function, somebody’s leading the group in prayer, and whatever they’re praying is something you don’t agree with. Might be something you’re not all that sure about; might be something you really can’t abide.

No I don’t just mean they’re committing one of those annoying prayer practices, like praying too long, or preaching a big ol’ sermon disguised as a prayer, or saying “like” way too many times, or getting repetitive. You disagree with the content of the prayer. They’re praying for what they shouldn’t.

Sometimes it’s stuff which’ll rub our politics the wrong way. “Oh Lord, re-elect our mayor! She’s a good woman, and that other guy is an idiot.” Heck, it might even rub our politics the right way—that other guy is an idiot—but we know better than to turn our group prayers into political endorsements, because God’s church must promote God’s kingdom, not earthly kingdoms. So we gotta reject the political stuff, whether it’s candidates, party platforms, political pundits’ talking points, and anything which might unnecessarily alienate the opposition party. (If you’re not sure about the difference between an issue we really should pray about, or something intentionally divisive, talk with the Holy Spirit and other Christians about it beforehand.)

Sometimes it’s bad theology. Or ideas based on misinterpreted, out-of-context scriptures. “Lord, I know you’ll give us what we ask because your word won’t return void,” even though none of what they prayed was his word (and it doesn’t even mean that). Or assumptions about how some evil we’re praying against was part of God’s plan all along, or name-it-and-claim-it demands, or statements about God’s character which actually go against his character.

Or it’s bad fruit. Anger, hatred, separatism, envy, justification for evil behavior, self-righteousness. Sometimes they think an authentic God-experience needs to be an emotional one, so they’re unnecessarily whipping up people’s emotions into a lather. Sometimes they’re babbling like pagans. Stuff the prayer leader should clamp down on… except sometimes this is the prayer leader.

So at the end of this rant prayer, they’ll say “Amen.” Custom in most churches for everybody else to repeat the amen, ’cause their prayer is our prayer. Or we agree with what they prayed for. Amen, you might recall, means “true; we agree; let it be so; so say we all; let their prayer be ours.” We’re at least okay with them praying that.

But you’re not okay with it.

And y’know, that’s fine. If you object to the prayer, you don’t have to say amen. Say nothing.

People might notice your silence.

Yeah, I’ve been there. I was in prayer meetings where I felt it was just wrong to say amen. These weren’t large prayer meetings either: There were four or five of us, and not saying amen was gonna get noticed.

I can live with that. Other Christians really can’t.

Usually ’cause “amen” is an automatic reaction. When all God’s people say amen, a lot of us are used to automatically saying amen; we don’t even think about it; “amen” just comes out. That’s actually a bad habit to get into. Amen, same as everything we tell God, should be thoughtful. We don’t merely say it because it’s tradition or custom to “hang up our heavenly phone call” with the word. It’s agreement—and here, we don’t agree.

Often ’cause peer pressure. We don’t care to make waves. We don’t wanna be the only conscientious objector in the room. And the other folks don’t want conscientious objectors: They agree, and want everyone to agree. Sometimes because they share the same sucky views as the prayer leader… but more often because they don’t wanna pick a fight either. Just shut up and go along with it, and deal with it later, in other ways. (Except they usually won’t.) Stifle your objections; we’re all trying to get along here.

And yeah, sometimes they do agree with that nasty prayer, and demand everyone else agree too. It’s their orthodoxy test: Believe as they do and pray as they do, or you’re no true Christian. They might even suspect you’re a mole from the devil. Such is the usual dark Christian mentality in some churches: In the 1600s they’d be the ones hanging the witches. Heck, if the state looked the other way, they’d still do it.

Obviously none of these are good rationales.

If we can’t sign off on a prayer—if our consciences can’t permit it—it’s actually sin if we cave to the pressure and say amen anyway. Our consciences may be defective, but the Holy Spirit nonetheless uses them to point us the right way. Ro 2.15 If we’re wrong—and we might be; we are in so many things—we have to be corrected, and the Holy Spirit does the correcting through grace and kindness. Your church may prefer commands and harshness, and they’d be wrong. Follow your conscience: If it’s a bad prayer, sit this one out.

And if you’re not sure, sit it out anyway. They should be able to accept you have doubts, ’cause every Christian doubts. They should be nothing but patient with you. If they can’t be, or won’t be, you’re in the wrong church.

Regardless, don’t capitulate and say amen when you don’t mean it. It’s not a complicated idea: It’s what Jesus himself taught. Let your yes be yes, your no be no, Mt 5.37 and your amen be amen. Anything else comes from an evil place.

Yeah, we could be wrong about this.

But speaking about coming from an evil place: Sometimes we’re in the wrong, and our objections to a prayer are because we lack maturity, or lack grace, or we wanna pray for all those things we shouldn’t.

I’ve known Christians who rarely say amen. They take it upon themselves to nitpick every prayer for quality, authenticity, and orthodoxy. If there’s any little thing they don’t like, to them it negates the entire prayer. Some of ’em aren’t okay with praying much of anything but the Lord’s Prayer. (And even then, they’ll argue about whether we oughta say “trespasses” or “debts,” Mt 6.12 KJV or “sins.” Lk 11.4)

I’ve been in more than one prayer group where if you pray anything these people differ with, they ask to pray next… and then try to undo or nullify everything you just prayed. Even try to slip into their prayers a little mini-sermon as to why you’re wrong. Since they’re talking to you, but pretending to talk to God, yeah this is hypocrisy. The appropriate thing to do would be to pause the prayer and deal with the disagreement, not passive-aggressively disagree in prayer.

The hyper-critical petitioner is a really awful, graceless person to worship with. It’d better not be you! But sometimes they’re the prayer leaders. You’d better believe they won’t say amen along with your prayers. Only along with their own.

So of course this is a warning lest we start getting that way.

If we find ourselves regularly objecting to every other prayer, we need to step back and ask ourselves whether we’re the problem. Are we being graceless? Too particular about what we consider appropriate prayer material? I mean, God’s okay with us telling him absolutely everything, or asking for all sorts of things. (Read Psalms again if you don’t believe me.) Prayer’s an infinitely flexible practice. Let’s not be the inflexible ones.

Yeah, if people are exhibiting bad Christian behavior, if they’re fruitless and nasty, by all means skip the amens. Don’t encourage the bad behavior. But don’t try to mold people into “proper” prayer behavior, whatever you imagine that to be. If they’re exhibiting good fruit of the Spirit, if they’re earnest, if they’re unwittingly wrong (and you can discuss that later), if they’re seeking God: Let ’em pray. Agree in prayer with whatever you can.

Hopefully it’ll be rare you have to sit out an amen. Even rarer you have to declare an anathema.

Next-level rejection of the prayer: Anathema.

If we object strongly enough to something that’s been prayed, or said in the pulpit, and it’s not enough to get up and leave the room—we want people to know what was just said was completely wrong—there is the Christian practice of saying anathema to the prayer.

It’s the opposite of saying amen. Ἀνάθεμα/anáthema is an ancient Greek word which means “damned,” or “be damned!” Yes, it’s in the bible; six times. The KJV tends to render it “accursed.” 1Co 12.3, 16.22, Ga 1.9

Not every Christian knows it, so they may have no idea what you mean by it. Those who do, may be shocked by it, ’cause Christians aren’t (and shouldn’t be!) in the habit of anathematizing prayers. I will say they’ll be a lot more shocked if you actually say “Oh, dammit!” but if the prayer was a particularly vile one, they’ll probably understand.

But then again you might be in a room full of particularly vile Christians, so they definitely won’t understand. Your call.