What is the easiest step of love — a step so easy, you can accomplish it before you even get out of bed in the morning? Today, we find the answer in an unsuspecting context. The answer comes in an old sermon from John Piper on 1 Timothy 2:1–4. And it happens to be my favorite Piper sermon to turn to when geopolitical tensions become evident in the world, as we have seen a lot of in 2022.
The sermon is an early one, preached back on January 20, 1981. In fact, it was preached just two days before the Iran hostage crisis came to an end — also the same day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the new president of the United States. There was a lot of national and international news in the air when Piper preached this sermon on 1 Timothy 2:1–4. In this context, the apostle Paul was eager for Christians to hold to the faith with “a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19).
And to that end, as Paul explains, Christians should entertain a global view of reality. It’s why Paul urges these early Christians to offer
supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings . . . 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)
For individual Christians, these prayers for kings, prayers for the leaders of nations, are essential to us keeping a clean conscience and not shipwrecking our faith. That’s an incredible claim, connecting our awareness of, and love for, the globe’s rulers to our own perseverance in the faith. Here’s Pastor John to explain how it all works.
A good conscience is a conscience that does not condemn us for what we do and that approves of what we do do. Did I say that right? It does not condemn us for what we do and approves us for what we do. That means, therefore, that the reason Paul is saying, “You’ve got to have a clear conscience in order to maintain faith” is that if we do things that our conscience constantly condemns, what’s going to happen is something like this — this is the way my experience works, anyway. See if yours doesn’t also.
If I fall into a habit that my conscience condemns, my conscience starts to say to me, “Piper, all that talk about trusting Christ and hoping in God is a lot of hot air, because if you really trusted in Christ and hoped in God, you wouldn’t go on breaking your conscience like that.” And therefore, conscience starts to bore holes in the belly of the ship of faith, and it starts to sink, and your confidence in the reality of your own conversion starts to melt away, because you’re constantly acting against your own conscience.
Either one of two things is going to happen. Either we confirm the genuineness of our faith by changing our behavior and plugging up those holes of conscience, or we go on and we show that our ship of faith was never seaworthy in the first place, and we sink into unbelief and blasphemy like Hymenaeus and Alexander did (1 Timothy 1:19–20).
Keeping the Conscience Clear
Therefore, Paul’s charges to Timothy to hold to faith and maintain a good conscience are tremendously important commands or admonitions, and anything that Paul can say that will help us maintain a good conscience ought to be welcomed with open arms. I think that’s what he does in 1 Timothy 2:1. Since you must keep a good conscience in order not to make shipwreck of faith, therefore, I urge you, first of all, pray for all men.
Now, in order to see why it is that failing to pray for all men will give us a bad conscience and jeopardize our faith, I think we have to ask, What is it that, for a Christian, pricks his conscience in relation to other people? The answer to that, of course, is clear from the whole Bible. All of God’s instruction is summed up in two commandments: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself.
In other words, anything that a Christian does, or leaves undone, that is unloving, will give him a bad conscience — or ought to give him a bad conscience if it’s not seared. Now, with that as a foundation, I think it starts to become clear why we must pray for other people in order to keep a clean conscience and so not make shipwreck of faith.
I see three reasons why prayer for other people is of first importance. That’s what I’m after to explain: How come he says prayer is of first importance in keeping a clear conscience and not making shipwreck of faith?
Prayer Helps Others with God’s Power
First, prayer taps the power of God on behalf of other people. I could try to help you as a pastor. You could try to help your neighbors. You could try to help Ronald Reagan, Governor Quie, Mayor Fraser, without praying for them, and you might do a little good, and judged from a limited perspective, you could do perhaps much good in the world’s eyes. But the little good that we could do without praying isn’t worthy to be compared with the great good that God can do if he, in response to our prayer, starts working on behalf of another person.
“The first thing you do for a person, if you love them, is ask God to work on their behalf.”
So if we want to do what’s best for people, if we really love them, then I think of first importance will be to pray that God work for them. The first thing you do for a person, if you love them, is ask God to work on their behalf. Of course, the way that God answers that prayer is almost always going to involve your labor of love on their behalf, but what can be accomplished through prayer is vastly more than you could accomplish without prayer.
Prayer Is the Easiest Step of Love
There’s a second reason why I think it’s of first importance to keep our conscience clear through praying for other people. It’s the easiest step of love. You don’t even have to get out of bed to pray for kings and all those who are in high positions. It doesn’t take any great physical strain, no great financial output. Of all the forms that love can take, prayer is probably the easiest. You just get down on your knees and rest and talk to the Lord about what you want him to do for other people.
Isn’t it true that if we are unwilling to do for other people what is easiest, then it’s very unlikely that we will be willing to do what’s hard on their behalf? Therefore, it makes sense, doesn’t it, that Paul would begin by saying, “Of first importance, if you want to love other people, is that you pray for all men.”
Prayer Goes Farther in Its Effects
The third reason why I think it’s of paramount importance is that prayer reaches farther than anything else in its effects that we can do. Before there were those satellites up there going around the earth, we could send a live television program from coast to coast, but we couldn’t send it, could we, all the way around to the other side of the world live? But now, if we want to get it to the other side of the world live immediately, we send it away from the world, and then it comes back to the world. Pretty simple. Get it live immediately.
“Prayer reaches farther in its effects than anything else that we can do.”
I think that’s a beautiful picture of the efficacy and extension of prayer. Without prayer, we can have an influence on a limited circumference of people, we can work hard and try to do good for them, and if we wait long enough, maybe by osmosis, our influence will spread all the way around the world. But God’s influence is everywhere and immediate. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense that first of all, if we want to help other people, if you want to bless the most people in the shortest amount of time with the most blessing, it just makes sense that you’d start by going to the satellite, going to God?
When a broadcaster wants to get a message to the greatest amount of people in the shortest amount of time — you can be sure that’s going to happen today if those hostages are released before this service is over, or before we meet tonight; we’re all going to know about it because of those satellites. If a broadcaster wants to do that, isn’t it interesting that, paradoxically, to get the message quickest this way, he sends it that way? That’s what we should do for other people. To bless them quickest this way, we should look that way first, up to God.
Pray for All People
If we would not make shipwreck of faith, but rather keep a clear conscience, therefore, we must pray for all men because of these three reasons:
- Prayer taps the power of God for other people.
- Prayer is the first and easiest step of love.
- Prayer reaches farther in its effects than anything else that we can do.