Sometimes you shouldn’t say amen.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 September

It’s important to agree in prayer. It’s also important to know when not to.

Ever been in this situation?— You’re in a prayer meeting, church small group, or some other Christian function. And whoever’s praying at the moment is saying something you totally don’t agree with. Something you kinda can’t agree with.

Fr’instance someone who uses prayer time to go on long rants about stuff they don’t like, and disguise them as prayers. Sometimes it’s political stuff: “Oh holy Lord, knowest thou those liberals in Washington? Gettest thou them out of the White House!” Sometimes it’s social issues, or pet peeves, or whatever those radio talk show hosts have got ’em riled up about today.

Or it’s bad theology. “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 their 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.

And if you object strongly enough—if, start to finish, it was awful, and the exact opposite oughta’ve been prayed—you can even go with the word anathema. It’s an ancient Greek word which means dammit—and yes it’s in the bible six times, and tends to be translated “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 “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.

Just saying if amen isn’t the appropriate thing to say, don’t say it.

Sometimes your silence will be noted.

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

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

Sometimes ’cause tradition. After a prayer, we usually say amen, but to these folks, we must say amen. You don’t not say amen. It’s not a proper prayer otherwise: All prayers must begin with “Dear God” or some other formal address to the deity, and end with “In Jesus name amen”—same as formal letters begin with “Dear sir or ma’am” and end with “Yours sincerely.” And if you can pray in King James language that’s a nice bonus.

Sometimes ’cause they don’t care to make waves. They don’t wanna be the only conscientious objector in the room. They don’t want you to be the only conscientious objector in the room either. They don’t want the petitioner, the prayer leader, the pastors, the church ladies, anyone to take offense. They don’t wanna pick a fight—as they’re worried will happen in a worst-case scenario. Say amen, stifle your own views, and let that be that.

Sometimes they’re the person who prayed that nasty prayer, and they demand everyone agree with them. It’s their orthodoxy test: Either you believe as they do and pray as they do, or you’re no true Christian; might even be a mole from the devil. Such is the usual dark Christian mentality. In the 1600s they’d be the ones hanging the witches. Heck, if the state looked the other way, they’d do it now.

Obviously none of these are good rationales.

If we can’t sign off on a prayer—if our consciences won’t permit it—it’s actually sin if we cave to peer 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.

Just make sure it doesn’t come from an evil place.

But back to the idea that we could be wrong.

There are Christians who rarely say amen. They’ve taken 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” BCP 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 their prayers try to undo or nullify everything you just prayed, and even try to slip into their sermon-prayers a little instruction as to why you’re wrong. Since they’re talking to you, but pretending to talk to God, 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. And 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.