How do I pray for a despot?

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
(1 Timothy 2:1–4 ESV)

In a country like New Zealand in which our politicians may be agnostic or atheistic but generally are not complete tyrants, it is not too hard to pray for our leaders to enable us to live peaceful and quiet lives. In fact they are quite happy for us to live such lives provided we all work hard and pay taxes. It is easy enough to make sense of verses 3 and 4 in this context, that God would be pleased for us to live quiet, peaceful lives and  have freedom to spread the gospel. Not a problem. Shut my Bible, pray for the government and live my peaceful life.

However, what if a country does have a tyrant as it’s leader? What if its rulers actively create war and division in the nation, driving peace and prosperity far away? What if those same rulers have a stated policy of destroying the knowledge of Jesus Christ wherever they find it in the lands they control? How do you give thanks for that? What good is God bringing out of genocide when most of those being murdered have never even heard the gospel yet?

I will freely admit that while I do pray for Burma and the Shan people, it is hard to avoid an element of despair in my prayers when that country is in such a mess because of it’s leaders. The people have no power to resist, even when they form a resistance army the junta send it’s troops and tanks to wipe them out (Junta Troops, Tanks deployed to Shan Rebel Territory, 15 Feb 2011). Villagers are conscripted, forced to work for the army without payment or food, their homes are burned down and wives raped. In my heart, the prayer I want to pray is that God will destroy these animals who masquerade as leaders. Generally this becomes slightly modified to be, “Lord, please bring justice to Burma.” Conceding that perhaps my version of justice may not be entirely just.

O.K., so maybe in the end I am effectively praying that God will enable the Shan people of Burma to live quiet, peaceful lives even though this is currently impossible for most of them. What about Paul’s comments in Romans:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
(Romans 13:1-5 ESV)

Again, this makes perfect sense in a nation with good governing authorities. They may not be perfect but we can accept that sinful men will never rule without some mistakes, self-interest, and lack of adequate knowledge at times. How does this apply to the people in Burma who have been driven out of their village by the army? They have very good reason to fear the authorities and try their utmost not to antagonize them, yet the army has standing orders to displace these villagers and make life hell for them. How is this being God’s servant for their good?

I’m afraid I cannot bring this post to a nice neat conclusion which answers the questions I have posed. I struggle with these things almost every time I pray. Knowing that Paul wrote this to Christians in Rome who were likely being persecuted for their faith by the authorities and that he had been persecuted by civic authorities himself makes it even harder to understand. In the end somebody in Burma is going to need to actively disobey the authorities in order to bring about change, how do I pray for the change to occur without also asking for people to violate this passage?

2 thoughts on “How do I pray for a despot?

  1. Hi Mike, I just caught up with this interesting post. Concerning Rom. 13, I think v. 7 provides some essential qualifications:

    “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

    Because they don’t always function as God demands, these things are not necessarily all owed to rulers when they are wicked or oppressive. By way of explanation, here are a few extracts from my sermon on Rom. 13:1-7:

    “[I]n v. 3 the ground given for our non-resistance of the authority is that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil”. That’s not so much a statement of fact as it is a job description. In other words, governments ought not to misbehave. They are supposed to be a terror against evil. They are supposed to serve God, as v. 4 says, by being his minister to us for good.

    “The very fact that God has established them means that human rulers are not the highest link in the chain of command. They are answerable to God. The book of Daniel [ch. 2-4] illustrates very well that God ordains the powers that be, and that those powers are accountable to God. … [W]e see… (1) God set up the king [Nebuchadnezzar] as ruler, (2) yet the king was brought to account by God for his unrighteousness, mercilessness and pride, and (3) that in their obedience to God, civil disobedience was perfectly acceptable for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. … [R]eferring back to Rom. 13.3, if the ruler is not conforming to his job description, if he’s being a terror for good works, then God is to be obeyed above men [Acts 5:27-29].

    “It can be hard for us at times to regard the Rt. Hon. minister of… whatever, as honourable. Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but the Rt. Hon. minister can be such… a tool. But he’s God’s tool. And that’s as much of an admonition to him as it is to us.

    Because the Burmese authorities are failing in their responsibility to be God’s servants for good, I don’t think we’d be out of bounds to pray for them to be restrained, converted, overthrown, or failing all that, even destroyed. (Imprecatory prayer is not necessarily inappropriate for Christians. Given everything that will occur when the Lord returns, “Thy kingdom come” has an imprecatory edge to it, cf. 1 Cor. 16:22.)

    Concerning 1 Tim. 2:1-4 as it applies to a despot, we could offer supplications, prayers and intercessions for what he needs for the good of himself and his subjects – the restraint of his evil or the conversion of his soul. Such results would promote the peaceful and quiet lives of God’s people. Without a doubt thanksgivings for a despot are the hard thing to do, especially for the Shan people. It feels next to impossible, but we could thank God if the despot curbs a slight bit of evil or promotes a modicum of order or good, and there’s not a state of anarchy. We could thank God if the despot’s persecution promotes the purity of the church or causes people to cry out to God. Thankfully the despot serves to glorify God one way or the other, through the display of either divine mercy or divine justice.


    • Hi Neil,
      Thanks for your excellent comment, your thoughts on Romans 13:1-7 are really helpful. Looking at it as a job description rather than a statement of how things actually are makes a lot of sense.

      Great thoughts on how we can be thankful even for a despot, it takes faith to pray like that!


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