byFaith | 11.26.13
By Alan Dowd

Last month, amidst the latest battle over government spending, Senate Chaplain Barry Black offered a short, simple and perfectly apt prayer for our divided nation: “Lord, deliver us from governing by crisis,” he intoned  in his reverent, baritone voice. “You created us for freedom, so keep us from shackling ourselves with the chains of dysfunction. Use our senators today to serve your purposes for this generation, making them ever mindful of their accountability to you…empowering us to be responsible stewards of your bounty…using judicious compromise for the mutual progress of all.”

The prayer works on two levels.

First, it implicitly asks God to protect our country from those crises beyond our control. Our leaders are sometimes forced to make decisions in the midst of crises that are thrust upon them and us: acts of war and terror like 9/11, mega-storms like Sandy and Katrina, natural disasters like the tsunami of 2004, man-made disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Plus, in the realm of the all-too-possible, there’s the daily threat of cyberattacks that could cripple our power grid, an EMP blast  that could throw us backwards into the 1800s, a pandemic that could kill millions and close us off from the world and each other, nuclear-armed madmen that want to hasten Armageddon.

No matter how powerful—how much in control—we pretend to be, the reality is we don’t control nearly as much as we think. Chaplain Black, a retired Navy admiral, knows that decision-making in such times of crisis can be difficult and downright dangerous. So it doesn’t hurt to ask God to help us avoid such times—to “deliver us from evil,” as it were.

A second reason Chaplain Black’s prayer is so apt—one that was probably at the front of his mind and heart as he penned it—relates to those crises of our own making. Chaplain Black was asking God to intervene and guide our leaders so that they stop resorting to kick-the-can governing, stop spending money they don’t have, stop creating economic bubbles by guaranteeing things government shouldn’t guarantee, stop promising too much at election time and delivering too little when it’s time to govern.

Indeed, Chaplain Black was not just praying for our country and our elected representatives; he was speaking to our country and especially to our elected representatives—asking, challenging, telling, pleading with them to turn away from brinkmanship and fiscal cliffs and default scares and shutdowns and over-spending and under-thinking.

His prayer reminds us that in a representative system like ours, where each branch of government can check and be checked by the other, the political majority is not vested with the powers of a czar; that the political minority should not act like guerillas; that compromise is not a dirty word but is an essential ingredient for making government work. 

This is not a call for everyone in Congress to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”. That’s not what the Founders envisioned for the checks-and-balances system they created. “Madison,” as George Will has noted, “created a constitutional regime that by its structure created competing power centers and deprived any of them of the power to impose its will on the others.”

In other words, there’s a time for arguing about policy differences and philosophical differences. However, as Jefferson  put it, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” which means there’s a time to compromise—something the Founders themselves illustrated. The constitution they crafted was a compromise of divergent views of government: Some wanted a strong union, with a strong central government that could be wielded to act on behalf of a growing nation, while others wanted power to reside in the states and sought to limit the power of the central government.

Yet both groups recognized they had to give a little in order to govern. And both wanted the new government’s “competing power centers” to find common ground. Otherwise, there can be no governing, as we are reminded during times of man-made political crisis.

To govern is to bring some semblance of order to a situation. It’s important to remember that our God does not like crisis and chaos: Genesis tells us He brought form and order out of chaos. Paul writes that He is not a God of disorder (I Corinthians 14), that government authorities are put in place for our own good (Romans 13) and that we are supposed to pray for “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives” (I Timothy 2).

The implication is clear: Earthly government serves an essential function in God’s plan. Legitimate governments exist to protect life and property, to be instruments of justice, to enforce contracts, to maintain law and order, to deter and if necessary repel enemies—all so we can live peaceful, quiet lives, as Paul put it. Jefferson called this the “pursuit of happiness.”

This cannot happen if our government lurches from crisis to crisis. To be sure, building a bridge between one party that thinks government is doing and spending too much—and needs to shrink—and another that thinks government isn’t doing enough—and needs to grow—is not easy. But it’s impossible if the two sides don’t even talk, which is what happened before and during the latest shutdown showdown. For instance, a Google search of President Obama and House Speaker Boehner “not talking” returns 132,000 results.

Chaplain Black’s prayer reminds us that you and I have a role to play here. “The real business of your life as a saved soul,” as Oswald Chambers wrote a century ago, “is intercessory prayer.” Most of us think of this as interceding for the lost, and understandably so. But it can also mean interceding for our country and those elected to govern. The Lord promises that if we seek His face and turn from our selfish ways, He will intervene to heal our land (II Chronicles 7).

To be sure, we must never put our country ahead of our faith. After all, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3). But as Philip Yancey observes in The Jesus I Never Knew, Christ followers “possess a kind of dual-citizenship. We live in an external kingdom of family and cities and nationhood, while at the same time belonging to the kingdom of God.”

Those of us blessed with this dual-citizenship, as Chaplain Black reminds us, serve our nation and our Lord by lifting our leaders up daily.

Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith's online magazine.