On Not Praying

Yes, this is an article about not praying. More specifically, it examines the question, ‘Is there ever a time and place to refuse to pray for someone or something?’ That may seem like a strange question to be asking, but the issue does arise on occasion.

For example, when I post here or elsewhere about some horrific act of violence or brutality, some will say they just cannot forgive such a person or pray for such a person. The most recent case of this involved a story I posted about the demonic rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl – by her Muslim “husband”.

The poor girl never made it through her “honeymoon”. To read about this will send shivers down your spine – and will rightly enrage every single one of you. The story is found here: redflagnews.com/headlines/the-eight-year-old-girl-who-didnt-make-it-past-her-wedding-night-warning-story-is-extremely-graphic

A number of people commented on that horrific story, and not a few said they could never pray for this person. They refused, even as believers, to intercede for such a person. I mentioned that they had every right to be engulfed in righteous anger about this.

I said they were perfectly entitled to be shocked, outraged and angry about all this. I said however that we are all sinners, and we all could be far more evil than we are if the right circumstances presented themselves. I just wrote about this the day before:
billmuehlenberg.com/2013/06/22/biblical-truths-confirmed/

And see also here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/06/04/falling-down-and-mass-murder/

I mentioned that we are all horrific sinners in the eyes of a holy God, and we all deserve eternal separation from him because of our great sin. God was exceedingly gracious to, and patient with, each one of us, so how dare we think he should not be to others?

Some of the commentators still could not bring themselves to pray for such a person – at least to pray anything good over him. And again, I fully understand their grievances here. But I told them I would pen a piece on this, so here it is. I did so in part to acknowledge that they were at least to some extent correct.

That is, there is actually some biblical warrant for not praying for people. It is to that issue which I now turn. On a few occasions we find a command of Yahweh about not praying. Most of these are found in Jeremiah, specifically, Jer. 7:16; 11:14; and 14:11. Closely related to these texts is Jer. 15:1.

Let me just look at Jer. 7:16: “So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you.” Several things can be said about this verse. First, it is a very clear and absolute prohibition.

There is no way to weasel out of this one. As Michael Brown notes, God’s word to Jeremiah is “categorical and comprehensive, covering the whole spectrum of the vocabulary of prayer and leaving no available option. . . . No window of mercy or reprieve is open, and no matter what approach to prayer Jeremiah might take, God will not be paying any attention at all.”

Second, this goes against the norm, since prophets often prayed and interceded for God’s people. Way back in Genesis we read of Abraham who is called a prophet and one who will pray for others (Gen 20:7). Moses of course interceded for his people (eg. Exodus 33), as did Samuel (1 Sam 7:5 eg.). And Jeremiah does pray for God’s people on other occasions, as in Jer 18:20 and 37:3.

Third, as I said, there are only a few of such instructions found in the OT, and those mostly in Jeremiah. So they seem to be specific to him, and are not to be taken as a general bit of advice for us today. Comments F. B. Huey, “No one would be so foolish as to use these words as a proof text to cease praying for others. God knew that the hearts of the people of Judah were so hardened that they had already made their irrevocable decision to ignore his warnings. Therefore prayer was useless. Sometimes it is too late to pray for another person. We are not privileged as Jeremiah was, however, to know by special revelation when that time has come.”

Fourth, there were undoubtedly good reasons why Yahweh so instructed Jeremiah. The sins of Jerusalem and Judah were so bad that there was no reason to pray any more – judgment had been pronounced. In 7:18 we read that the whole family was involved in gross idolatry and rebellion: men, women and children. Enough was enough.

Their heinous sin had resulted in the just judgment of God, as Jeremiah was plainly told (Jer 7:20). As Philip Graham Ryken writes, “Once God’s intention was to do all that had been revealed to Jeremiah, it would have been wrong for the prophet to pray for deliverance. To do so would have been to pray against the purposes of God. God is glorified by his justice. Whenever he judges sin, it is wrong to pray against judgment. Praying for the glory of God to come includes accepting his justice.”

OK, so what about the New Testament, you ask. A good question indeed. Believe it or not, we actually have a NT passage which deals with this as well. I refer to 1 John 5:16 which says, “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that.”

For various reasons I will not enter into this verse right now in detail, mainly because of some of the major interpretive problems found there. The specific issue has to do with clearly identifying what exactly the “sin that leads to death” is.

Much ink has been spilled on this, with plenty of conjectures proffered. There are at least three or four main options available here. But they will have to be examined in another article. As James Montgomery Boice rightly states, trying to figure this one out “becomes strangely fascinating to certain Christians, so much so that they tend to spend all their time on the exception (the sin unto death) and not on the central message of the passage.

“Whatever the interpretation we give to the exception, therefore, we must always bear in mind that it’s the exception and that the burden laid upon us by John is to pray for any believer whom we see falling into sin.” What he says next is an apt addition to our deliberations here:

“We do not need encouragements not to pray. That comes naturally. We need encouragements to pray, particularly for others. In this responsibility we are greatly encouraged by John’s teaching and by the example of the Lord Jesus Christ in his prayer for Peter.”

Our problem is not praying too much, but too little. And learning how to pray for those you would rather not pray for is difficult indeed. But because we are all sinners deserving of eternal separation from God, how can we not pray for others, and hope that they too come to repentance?

And to pray for someone like the Muslim rapist mentioned above does not mean we blink at evil. If he were properly tried in a Western court for this, he should rightly receive the harshest of sentences. We can concurrently pray that justice gets meted out to him now by the state while also praying for his salvation. I speak to this in more detail elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/14/sin-forgiveness-and-consequences/

Other biblical truths could be mentioned here, such as the principle that if we will not forgive others, God cannot forgive us (eg Matthew 6:14-15). So we must be willing to pray for those who seem beyond hope, and seem to deserve only God’s just judgment.

And if we can’t readily pray for God’s blessing on them, then at least pray that God’s justice and purposes will prevail. God was infinitely patient and gracious to us, so we must be willing to personally extend those same divine mercies even to those individuals who utterly revolt us with their sheer and unadulterated evil.

[1390 words]

11 Replies to “On Not Praying”

  1. Bill, was there any reason for using KJV, rather than a modern translation?

    “So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you.”
    NIV-UK

    John Angelico

  2. Thanks John

    Actually the only reason is this: in my earlier days of making a personal concordance, I used the KJV, but lately I use the NIV. So I really should have updated that one – in fact I may do it now thanks.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. We talked about this very matter in our little prayer meeting last week and couldn’t think of a text to support one member’s assertion that she was discerning that she was NOT to pray for a particular person/situation. I will pass the above to her hoping it will help her peace of mind.

    Anna Cook

  4. Daniel, in his prayer of national confession [Daniel ch. 9], uses the all-inclusive pronoun, “we”. Surely there is a place where we must accept our own parts in the tragic and perilous apostasy that is 21st-Century Western culture. Can we really safely assume that intercession for our neighbours and our nations can coexist with a self-righteous assumption that the visible church in the Western world has no responsibility for the ethical downfall of our culture?

    John Wigg

  5. I like your summation that we have a natural tendency NOT to pray, so it hardly needs reinforcement.
    The writing of persecuted Christians like Richard Wurmbrand come to mind. There are simlar stories among heros of the faith in a Muslim context.
    Here’s a suggestion;
    Taking our sinful nature into account, perhaps the people we feel like NOT praying for (like a violent Muslim, or a violent Saul of Tarsus) are more likely the ones we should spend our prayers on.
    On the other hand, Christians seem to be atttracted to praying for celebrities. Perhaps its a desire for a shortcut because we think it would publicise Jesus (like He needs some PR). I can’t help but notice these prayers for celebs seem to be spectacularly ineffective.
    I believe we should be EXTREMELY distrustful of the “don’t pray for someone” prompting. Remember Saul of Tarsus. I would have prayed his horse fell on him…but that’s my flesh…

    Tim Lovett

  6. It is so easy for us to focus on exceptions. To take a New Testament example, with divorce and remarriage there is a focus on a so-called “exception” in Matthew 19 and another in one of the epistles. As we know from Malachi God hates divorce. One of the great problems in our society is marriage breakups and yet rather than focusing on the message that divorce and remarriage is wrong, a standard that shocked the disciples so much that they felt this meant remaining single would be preferable to marrying, people focus on possible excuses for doing so. Matthew 5, Mark 10 and Luke 16 are very clear and clearly give no exceptions, even indicating that it is wrong for the innocent party to remarry. Yet rather than concluding that Matthew 19 is poorly translated and is misunderstood, they read in an interpretation of Matthew 19 into the other passages.

    It is interesting that we have no record in the gospels of Jesus ever talking about homosexuality or abortion (there are good reasons for this such as it was already accepted in Jewish society that homosexuality is wrong), and yet other equally important issues that he actually talked about are largely ignored.

    Matt Vinay

  7. Well said, Matt. I believe there is also a verse in Romans (?) where Paul writes that if a man remarries whilst his wife is still alive he commits adultery? (Please correct me if I’m wrong, here.)

    Mick Koster.

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