By Nabil Habibi
As we celebrated Lebanon’s Independence Day this week, and as the economic crisis continues to deepen, there have been renewed calls from Christians to pray for Lebanon. I have always felt uneasy about praying for my country.
I do believe that prayer is essential. An active prayer life is the basis of our relationship with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is also a great source of change. A praying church knows the mind of God and is able to withstand the evils of this world. Praying people of faith worship God and manifest Christ to/in wider society. Even more, prayer (sometimes) works out marvelous miracles right before our eyes.
But does this mean we should pray for Lebanon? I believe that calling the church to pray for Lebanon is a beautiful act of faith that contains potential for dangerous theological assumptions. I graciously ask you to take a theological walk with me as I seek to unpack some dangers of the zeal to pray for Lebanon.
God’s love for justice and mercy is an over-arching theme across all of Scripture. God is full of sadness over the oppression of the poor in Lebanon. His heart is full of mercy for the downtrodden. The government of this country is in charge of the well-being of the people, be they citizens or refugees. In that regard, to pray for Lebanon is to pray for a just state that deals with people according to God’s heart.
The danger, I think, is to assume that if all the Lebanese churches got together and prayed for justice and mercy then things will necessarily get better. But for the past 40+ years we have prayed, and economic justice has not improved; if anything, things have gotten worse. Are our prayers corrupted, or does our theology need tweaking? What about countries with a predominantly non-churched or nonreligious population who are doing just great? How does that figure in our belief that if we pray things will get better?
I am very much aware of the abundance of promises of economic wealth for believers and the faithful nation in the Old Testament (e.g. 2 Chronicles 7:12-22). I believe that we need to re-read those passages in light of God’s work in Christ. If we truly believe that Christ is the New Israel, and Jews and Gentiles find their identity as the people of God in Him (see for instance Galatians 3: 19-29; but truly this is the main thrust of the New Testament), then we must read passages promising blessing to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament as applicable to the church today.
If the church today repents and humbles herself in prayer before God, He will move in power to spread the Kingdom of God through Christ. But this will not necessarily bring economic wealth to the nation where that church resides.
Even more, as we pray for Lebanon as a church, are we praying for the poor of Lebanon that they might experience justice, and for the sinners of Lebanon that they might experience spiritual freedom? Or are we praying to maintain the economic lifestyle we once had but lost during the crisis?
Are we ready for God to answer our prayers? Are we ready to be God’s hands in Lebanon? Are we ready to sell our buildings, cars, homes, and belongings to help the poor in this crisis? Are we ready to live out God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven?”
If we pray, God will bless the church. God’s blessing, as per Jesus’ clear teachings in Matthew 6:19-34, does not involve an amassing of riches but a sacrificial lifestyle that spreads the Kingdom of God through faithful living. Paul says it well in his concluding words to the church in Rome while encouraging them to live in harmony: “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).
We might pray and not see economic justice. But we persist in prayer. Like the widow of Luke 18, we pound the doors of heaven. We have faith that the Son of Man will one day redeem all things. Until that day we pray and act faithfully for and in justice and mercy for all.
Lebanon is not an exceptional country in the eyes of God. He does not love Lebanon more than he does Syria. Nor does he love the USA more than he loves Russia or China. God, in Christ, has opened the way of salvation for all people regardless of ethnicity or gender or race or background. That is what we see in Peter’s meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10. In what is perhaps one of the most important passages in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, Isaiah 2: 1-5, we see that the Jews were waiting for God to bring salvation to all nations through the physical city of Zion. But what happens in the New Testament? God’s location is in the moving body of Christ. Salvation is in Christ and not in a land or temple. Christ is the new Israel. He is the holy temple! Therefore, we have Paul’s victorious proclamation in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus!”
The danger in our zeal to pray for Lebanon is that we allow tribal and sectarian attitudes to fester within the church. As we pray to see God’s kingdom expand in our country, may we be ready not only to lose all things in acts of mercy for our neighbors, but may we be ready to lose all things in acts of mercy for the locals, refugees, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and atheists living around us without any distinction.
Let us pray then pray for Lebanon.
Let us pray for forgiveness. We have been terrible stewards of this beautiful piece of God’s creation.
Let us pray for justice and mercy. May God intervenes to punish the wicked and lift the oppressed.
Let us pray for strength to live faithfully in these turbulent times. Life is tough. The future is frightening. May God remind us that whether we live or die, we do so for Him and His glory.
Let us pray for strength to carry the cross. May we be ready to lose all things in acts of love and mercy for all those around us.
Let us pray to know God’s will. Even as I write these words the Lord is bringing goodness out of this evil. May He help us to see with His eyes and be His hands to the tired people of this land.
The Lord is Good. Come and taste that He is good. Blessed are the people who rely on Him (Psalm 34:8).
Nabil is a lecturer in New Testament Studies at ABTS and leads the youth ministry in a local Nazarene Church in Beirut. He enjoys the people, land, culture, and food of his country Lebanon, but he lacks any strong patriotic feelings.
Nabil, thanks for sharing about this important topic for Christians in Lebanon and across contexts. Nationalism (or zeal for the nation-state) can certainly be an infectious and blinding sentiment. At the same time, states really do matter to the wellbeing of people, and we certainly need to pray for the things that impact peoples’ lives. Perhaps something that could help us think about praying for Lebanon is to consider the questions: how would we recommend (Lebanese) Christians from 1905 pray for the Ottoman Empire, or local believers from 1925 to pray for the French Mandate? This can get us thinking about how we should pray for the state of Lebanon today knowing that it’s the current political reality (that will not las forever). (I think exercise like this can be useful for other contexts also, for example thinking about how Texas Christians should have prayed for Mexico in 1830, the Republic of Texas in 1840, the United States in 1850, the Confederacy in 1861 (hopefully for its demise), and the USA again in 1870 onwards.) The natures of our territories are subject to historical flux, but our prayer shouldn’t follow fluctuating lines. Like you said, praying “your kingdom come, will be done on earth as it is in heaven” should move us past the whole business of momentary political entities and toward the things of heaven. I like what you said about how if this is done faithfully then our concern for the poor will grow and our will to live sacrificially will increase. Thanks Nabil for putting these thoughts together. We need to continue mulling over such matters.
Thank you Brent for your kind words and very insightful comment. Indeed, our love for shifting political entities should never overshadow our love and zeal for the eternal Kingdom of God. Our first (and perhaps only) loyalty should be to the Kingdom. And we see all others entities we belong to through the lens of the Kingdom.