It is an old wartime saying that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’. Leaving aside the silly arguments as to whether this is statistically true or an aphorism – is it a good thing? Will God be pleased to answer the prayers of those in danger? Is God honoured when we pray to him in times of trouble?
Prayer is one of the most basic human responses to trouble. When the doctor’s diagnosis is really grim, it is only natural to seek divine help. When our children are in danger, who doesn’t utter a quick prayer for safety?
But is prayer to be encouraged amongst people who ignore God except in times of crisis? Is God to be used as a ‘phone-a-friend’ when the going gets tough? Will God allow us to be his ‘fair weather friends’ – only calling upon him in times of difficulty?
This summer we have seen some dreadful tragedies with floods and cyclones in the Eastern States of Australia, fires in the West, and earthquakes in Christchurch. In the face of these disasters people can do little else but pray for God’s mercy and rescue. Politicians and journalists, not given to religious references, start talking of praying for people when confronted with the horrors of these catastrophes. Only the most rigorous of atheists will talk of our concern for others without mentioning praying for them. But is it a good thing or hypocrisy?
The trouble with unbelievers calling upon the name of the Lord in the face of disaster is that they lose their title deeds to the name “unbelievers”. They may still be doubters or superstitious or hypocrites, but they are no longer “unbelievers”.
Even more importantly, the trouble with unforgiven sinners praying to God is that it compromises his holiness. The Psalmist wrote “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” (Psalm 66:18). The book of Proverbs says: “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.” (Proverbs 28:9). And Isaiah explained how sin had set a separation between God and Israel so that he, who is able to hear prayers and rescue, did not hear their prayers (Isaiah 59:1f). And James wrote of the adultery of people who in love with this world prayed to God “wrongly to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3f). It is as the apostle Paul says “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans14:23).
Here then is the problem: prayer is the articulation of faith. It is the expression of faith – putting trust into words. For in calling upon God in times of trouble we are saying that he cares and is willing and able to help. In other words, we express our belief that God is loving and powerful to save. Encouraging unforgiven sinners to pray in time of trouble may seem to compromise God’s holiness but not to encourage them to turn to God in prayer may be to deny his gracious compassion. Many of Jesus’ miracles were performed in response to people asking for relief from their suffering, even though their faith was weak (Mark 9:24), their understanding limited (Mark 4:40) and their salvation not understood until after their healing (Mark 5:34, 10:51f, Luke 17:17f). In fact our English translators often have difficulty knowing whether to translate some passages as ‘saved’ or ‘healed’.
Certainly there may be things we need to fix in our relationship with God. There may be a lifetime of rebellion against him or ignoring him. There may be crimes that need to be dealt with, lifestyle that needs repentance, sins that need to be forgiven and restitution that needs to be made. But turning back to God does not always come in a neat package of sorting out ‘first things first’, because turning back to God is the first thing.
Sometimes it is when we turn back to God that we become aware of the awfulness of our sin in the light of his burning holiness, and are moved by his gracious care to seek the forgiveness we need. It is entering the sanctuary that makes us aware of our unworthiness before God and of the judgement of God upon sinners (Psalm 73:17).
Martin Luther and John Newtown were not the first, nor the last, unforgiven sinners to call out in prayer during the peril of a storm. And Luther did not even call out to God but to St Anna(!) – the non-Biblical legendary grandmother of Jesus whose cult he later attacked. But God used that moment of confused prayer to start him on the pathway of salvation.