Back in college, I belonged to a campus Christian fellowship. One night, at our weekly Bible study, a regular group member arrived looking frazzled. Evidently, it had been a hectic day. When we went around the room sharing prayer requests, she volunteered, in a voice both weary and playful, “The whole world—and everyone in it.”
We all shared a good laugh. “Guess that pretty much covers everything! We can keep prayer time short tonight.”
I thought back to that moment several years later, when I first encountered bumper stickers reading, “God Bless the Whole World. No Exceptions.” You can see why someone might find that sentiment attractive. “God bless America”? Too narrow and chauvinistic. We’re better off not beseeching the Almighty to play favorites.
Still, the new slogan left me discontented. Why imply that there’s anything unseemly, even ungodly, about loves and loyalties less than universal in scope?
We understand this readily enough in our prayer lives. If I ask my fellow small group members to lift up my ailing grandmother, no one expresses bafflement or outrage that I haven’t asked God to heal all the ailing grandmothers. No one imagines that I harbor indifference or ill will toward any other old folks. In other words, no one scolds me for failing to remember “the whole world—and everyone in it.”
In all likelihood, my ailing grandmother isn’t the world’s most meritorious grandmother. God doesn’t love her any more, or less, than your own kith and kin. But being my grandmother, her welfare naturally lies uppermost in my mind, and weighs heaviest on my heart. So it is with nations. You cherish your homeland—you champion its cause above others—because it’s home.
To be sure, we ignore the “no exceptions” outlook at our peril. Christian faith may not forbid elevated attachment to particular places (any more than to particular people). But hopefully it enlarges our vision, sets vital boundaries, and tempers patriotic excess. Proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” reaffirms that nothing else—no crown, no constitution, no ballad of blood and soil—should claim our highest allegiance. It joins us to that “great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).
If I request prayer only for my ailing grandmother every week, you might wonder why I never request prayer for the work of the church or the spread of the gospel. Likewise, if I can’t stop singing “God Bless America,” you might question my eagerness to sing “Worthy Is the Lamb” among that great rejoicing multitude.
But I will say this for “God bless America”: As a prayer (and it is a prayer, not an idolatrous boast), it gets human nature right. As embodied creatures, we can’t pour our hearts into lofty abstractions like “humanity” or “the world.” Instead, our pulses beat to the rhythms of flesh-and-blood communities, with their histories and traditions, their customs and folkways, their neighbors and friends, and their paradoxical pairings of good and evil, glory and tragedy. We can’t escape feeling inspired or haunted by what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.”
Anyone reborn of the Holy Spirit will naturally lament, with inward groans and outward cries, all the brokenness afflicting “the whole world—and everyone in it.” But a prayer aspiring to everything has a subtle way of shrinking to nothing. For all the hazards of praying “God bless America,” and for all the other prayers we ought to pray, it remains a prayer for something real and tangible.
Not every Christian will fit the “patriotic” profile, at least in its conventional sense. Maybe you think fondly of your native land but feel called to the mission field. Maybe your country has wronged you grievously, and genuine affection sounds preposterous. And frankly, maybe you just aren’t wired to tear up when the national anthem rings out or the flag ripples in the breeze.
But as long as we have nations, we’re going to need people willing to look after their welfare. In Jeremiah 29:5–7, the prophet relays God’s message to the Jews taken captive in Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. . . . Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.”
As exiles ourselves (1 Pet. 2:11), it’s hard to improve on this mission statement. But don’t miss Jeremiah’s very next words: “Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Sounds like permission to say “God bless Babylon.”
True enough, certain Christians misconstrue divine “blessing” as nothing but power, glory, and geopolitical goodies. Instead of countering with a hazy universalism, thank God all the louder for the particular patch of earth he’s provided. And ask him to help you tend, govern, and love it well.
Matt Reynolds is an associate editor at Christianity Today.
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