A Wake-Up in Prayer

A short story about prayer by none other than the cynical Mark Twain reminds us that prayer has consequences or implications, and those consequences or implications perhaps need to be kept in mind when we ponder our petitions. You may know Mark Twain’s mono-eyed “The War Prayer,” but if you don’t here’s a full version online.

The short story is simple: folks have gathered to church to pray for their sons who have been called into war, they pray for victory for the country, and then a man enters to pray the implications of their prayers. Here is what the “aged stranger” prayed, filling in the lines left unnoticed by the Christians at prayer:

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside–which the startled minister did–and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne–bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import–that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of–except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two–one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this–keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer–the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it–that part which the pastor–and also you in your hearts–fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory–must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle–be Thou near them! With them–in spirit–we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it–for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

Not, I believe, what Jesus had in mind when he said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Bill Crawford

    I remember going to an evening event organized by my high school history teacher back in 1970 or ’71 where he had us do a reading of this. Still powerful.

  • http://firstbaptistnewark.com Mark Farmer

    Our weekly Bible study this week wrestled with what Is of value to us in the horrible chapters of Revelation 8-9. Twain’s story epitomizes what we came up with. The recorded visions portray what would happen should God answer the prayers of the martyrs for vengeance (6:10). Whatever might have been the intention of the author, the Spirit was saying to us, “Is this really what you want?”

  • Randy Gabrielse

    A most appropriate message in a week when we are asked to remember that first week of Shock and Awe and the spirit of triumph and quick victory that led to “Mission Accomplished,” and then all that followed.
    Randy

  • http://karenzach.com karenzach

    And then we wonder why someone goes on a shooting rampage at Quantico…

  • Mark Nieweg

    Yes, but….
    That’s all I ever got from my challenges to my church to widen their horizons to that of the kingdom of God. I remember pleading with God to give me some way of getting through this thick American Evangelical skin to teach what it meant in Jesus’ context to say “love your enemies”; after all, I used to sit in their perspective. If He could open my eyes, He could open theirs. What came to mind was the movie “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This had nothing to do with the movie’s theme, but the categories it provided for me to help them understand. First I charted across the chalk board those three categories; In the first column I placed various political groups, starting with those of Jesus’ day and moving into current history, groups who would say they represent the Good; I moved on to how each group would perceive of any other group at the time given their self-definition of what is right. That would be the Bad. The Ugly, the one no one wanted to be a part of because it destroyed both a group’s self-definition plus their justification of how they thought of those “others” was where Jesus sat, exposing self-righteous hypocrisy, complicity, and duplicity, and moving all criteria of what is right from the horizontal comparisons into the vertical dimension of God’s righteousness that pretty much levels all else. Then, I told the class that I was going to draw a horizontal line from left to right that represented the extent of God’s forbearance in Christ. I asked them to tell me when to stop. YES, BUT….. (and that from a missionary home on furlough). I knew by the reaction I had gotten the point across, much as I hope Twain’s prayer did in his day.


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