Unanswered prayer is hard to take. “Ask and it will be given,” Jesus promises. When we ask and ask, and it’s not given, we wonder if Jesus had his fingers crossed when he said that.
This is a common dilemma, a regular topic in sermons, pastoral care, and home Bible studies. We pay far less attention to the equal difficulty of answered prayer. We ask and ask, and God answers, but the gift doesn’t come with the wrapping we expect or in the form we want. Answered prayers are hard to distinguish from the unanswered.
Faithful Israelites ask the Lord to purge idolatry, throw out unscrupulous kings, drain the swamp. And he sends . . . Nebuchadnezzar, who burns the temple and cracks the walls of Jerusalem. Habakkuk doesn’t much like this answer: The law is ineffective, injustice spreads, and things are horrible. But the Chaldeans? Really, Lord?
Over the past several decades, American Christians have felt a growing sense of marginalization and ostracism. We’re mocked by popular and elite culture and our beliefs are trampled in law and public policy. Even uttering traditional Christian views of sodomy (sin, unnatural act) is condemned as bigotry.
We’ve prayed for relief. We ask and ask, and God sends . . . Trump? A thrice-married billionaire playboy who made his fortune in casinos and reality TV?
It’s hard to tell whether the answer is a Yes or a No. Understandably, some have vehemently argued it’s a disastrous No. They may prove to be right. We may be heading into four nightmarish years of personal scandal punctuated by ill-considered tweets.
Whether we think it’s Yes or No depends in part on what we wanted out of the election. Neither candidate appealed to me in policy terms. Nor was virtuous leadership on offer from either party. A non-starter, as the kids say, in an election pitting a corrupt careerist against what Rod Dreher calls the “Teenager in Chief.” Voters eager for a bit of creative destruction enjoyed the BOOM! of the Manhattan Molotov cocktail.
If we moderate our expectations and hope for nothing more than someone who will protect our right to be ourselves, a Trump presidency looks more promising.
Self-protection doesn’t seem a high-minded political agenda. Christians are other-directed, and rightly so. But that can turn into political masochism: We defend everyone but ourselves. That’s a practical problem, and also a theological mistake. Protecting Christian interests is a legitimate Christian interest.
We say we represent God to the world. “I’ll curse those who curse you,” God told Abraham, and we think we’re Abraham’s children. That may be a delusion, but if it’s true, it means that messing with us puts our opponents at some considerable risk. Jesus is a slain Lamb who offers himself for his bride. But lay a finger on that bride, and he can be an awfully ferocious Lamb.
We defend ourselves to uphold God’s good name, which we bear. We defend ourselves to carve out freedom to speak God’s word. As the early Christian apologists knew, defending Christians isn’t just pragmatic self-interest. It’s an evangelical interest.
God evaluates rulers and nations by how they treat the Church. Nebuchadnezzar is God’s chosen instrument for disciplining Judah, but when the Babylonians indulge in gleeful mayhem, the Lord disciplines them. Cyrus had his faults, but he’s a Sunday school hero for sending the Jews home with material to build a second temple. Rome turns against Christians, but in the book of Acts, they’re good guys, defending the Church.
One way to measure Trump’s presidency is: Will believers be freer to be believers under Trump than they have been for the past twenty-five years? Will Trump threaten the tax-exempt status of Christian colleges and ministries that reject same-sex marriage? Or will he challenge the fascist regime of group-think and group-speech? It’s pretty clear already: Trump may not share our convictions, but he shares our enemies. And that’s not nothing.
Given the Lord’s sardonic track record in answering prayer, we should at least entertain the possibility that Trump is a cleverly disguised Yes.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.