In times of uncertainty, the response of the church has always been to pray.
In the New Testament, of course, God’s people typically cried out in response to persecution rather than pandemic. But it’s not as if the Bible presents us with specific prayers for specific occasions (Being attacked by a foreign army? See Hordes, Pillaging). The prayers of Scripture give us a glimpse into the heart and spirit of the people, a peek into the way they thought and oriented themselves in relationship to God and the world.
Though I’ve written about it before, it seems appropriate during this global health crisis to take a fresh look at the prayer in Acts 4. I know, I know: some of you are getting tired of hearing about the crisis. When it comes to worries, coronavirus might not even make your Top 3. But whatever concern we’re facing, I believe Acts 4 can give us some much-needed perspective.
At that point in the story, a Spirit-filled Peter had already given his Pentecost sermon, after which 3,000 people believed. He had also healed a man who had never been able to walk. Amazed and curious onlookers followed Peter across the outer court of the Jerusalem temple to hear yet another proclamation of the gospel. All of this greatly annoyed the temple officials. They had Peter and John arrested and dragged before the ruling council.
The two apostles were soon released unharmed. The number of believers in Jerusalem was 5,000 strong by that point; Peter and John sought them out and told them what had happened. In response, the people prayed as one:
Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.
Acts 4:24-30, NRSV
The prayer includes three elements: a grateful acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty, a recognition of being part of God’s unfolding story, and a request for the strength needed to continue to proclaim the gospel.
The sovereign God is Creator and Lord of all. History unfolds according to his purpose, as proclaimed through ancient prophecy. Those who believe can see how even the most dire current events are part of God’s predetermined plan. On that basis, the people see themselves as being embedded in the story that God is still writing. They don’t ask to be rescued from further threat; instead, they ask for the strength and boldness needed to continue to proclaim the gospel, whatever happens.
Sovereignty. Story. Strength. Those three words summarize what I believe is a helpful perspective for Christians facing times of trouble. What might it look like for us to see the world as the church did in Acts 4? More specifically, how might Acts 4 shape the we pray in the face of the coronavirus threat?
First, what would you need to say in order to restore your confidence in the sovereignty of God? What helps you remember and believe that God is the Creator and Lord of all, and that God is neither absent nor asleep, no matter the circumstances? Begin your prayer there.
Second, how can you remind yourself that you are part of God’s unfolding story? It helps to remember that the story told in Scripture begins with creation, and ends with the future restoration of all that is broken, with God’s family dwelling with him in resurrection bodies on a renewed earth. We are destined for an eternity in which there will be no more death, crying, or pain (Rev 21:1-4; John doesn’t say it explicitly, but I assume that means no more coronavirus, either).
Our lives, in other words, are not the main story; our stories are at best subplots of God’s story. Don’t get me wrong: that doesn’t make our lives trivial. It is by grace that our stories are woven into God’s, giving them weight and significance. But it’s too easy to treat God as a secondary character in our own heroic tale — something like a Disney sidekick — instead of remembering that we have the privilege of participating in God’s story. So what tales can we tell each other to encourage us all to keep things the right way around?
Finally, strength. Certainly, we need to pray for the strength and tenacity to get through trying times. Those prayers come easily. But the main concern of the Acts 4 prayer is the spread of the good news, the continuation of God’s eternal plan. How, then, might the way we handle the crisis show others what it means to follow Jesus? (Hint: it does not include unnecessary and anxious hoarding, nor arguments with your fellow Costco patrons.)
Because if we’re on our knees recognizing the sovereignty of God, we’d best live like we really believe it once we stand back up.
So: what might the Acts 4 prayer look like for you, today?