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Gabriel Manyati: The Zimbabwe conundrum: Understanding the limits of prayer

By Gabriel Manyati

The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’S: but the earth hath he given to the children of men. – Psalm 115:16

A QUESTION that has puzzled many Christians across Zimbabwean society at home and in the diaspora today is, why is it that we have fasted and prayed for the political, economic and social situation in our country to change but things keep getting worse as each year passes?

Gabriel Manyati
Gabriel Manyati

Through the many years that I have associated with and therefore observed at close range Zimbabwean Christians, prayer and fasting have always been associated with divine intervention that could affect prospects of personal and national success, well-being and prosperity. 

I remember attending prayer services in Zimbabwe where time was routinely devoted to praying for the nation and its leadership, and this was long before Zimbabwe became a global talking point for all the wrong reasons.  Across the length and breadth of the country, many prayer sessions have been conducted, which means as a country Zimbabwe has never lacked prayer, neither have its leaders.

But over the last 20 years, Zimbabweans and indeed other nations have watched the economy plunge into a tailspin without antecedent, and have observed with horror as our politics and society have moved from being merely polarised to being downright toxic, as evidenced by the exchanges on our social media platforms, where the anger and fury are palpable.

So what has become of all the prayers that have gone into Zimbabwe and its leadership?  Doesn’t God answer prayer?  Are we praying amiss? 

One thing we need to understand is that prayer has limits, unbeknownst to most believers, who suppose that since God is omnipotent, anything prayed for will necessary happen.  If you look at the history of Africa, especially aspects of it such as slavery and colonialism, one can get upset even with God if they do not understand the nature of God and His role in human affairs as set out in the Bible.  During the Atlantic slave trade, which lasted for a period of 400 years, at least 12 million slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas. After the abolition of slavery came colonialism, where Africa was parceled out among European nations under circumstances of pillage.  If God is good, where was He when all this happened?  Why didn’t He intervene to stop it?

God did not intervene for the same reason He doesn’t intervene today when we fast and pray for the nation without understanding the limits and rules of prayer. What most Christians, and indeed, non-believers, do not understand are the very sobering implications of scriptures such as Psalm 115:16, which states, “The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’S: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.” What this scripture implies is that while God rules in heaven, mankind have been given the earthly domain to rule over. 

God is not going to randomly come into our realm and start ruling – allowing things or forbidding them as He sees fit.  The heaven, even the heavens, belong to God, but the earth He has given to the children of men.  This is our realm!

In the earthly realm, or in the world, as we say, God will allow whatever we allow.  If there is injustice, disease, poverty or oppression among us, God is not going to supernaturally stop it across society without us acting to end it. 

If you look at most of the healings in scripture, you will find that they were seldom a supernatural act of God across society but individual acts affecting specific people.  The healings we need for our politics, economics and society are going to take more than divine intervention to take place.  We are going to have to take responsibility and be the change we wish to see even as we pray.

Think about how slavery, colonialism and the many wars that have been fought in the world came to an end.  They did not end as a result of direct divine intervention but only as people began to speak out and act against the unwholesome issues. 

Slavery ended because of someone speaking out against the inhumanity of it, as did colonialism.  In the case of colonialism, wars had to be fought, hence the phrase “liberation struggle”.  God will sit in heaven and do nothing about the situation no matter how drastic we think it is, unless we take arms against the sea of troubles and by opposing end them.  If we choose to do nothing because we want to ‘unscripturally’ transfer responsibility to God, nothing will be done about the situation.

In the case of Zimbabwe, Ian Smith refused to give the country up for majority rule, promulgating in 1965 the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, which sought to perpetuate white settler rule.  He infamously vowed not to allow black majority rule in his lifetime, and not even in a thousand years, prompting the fledgling nationalist Robert Mugabe to declare that “if my freedom depends on Mr Smith’s lifetime, then I have no choice but to cut it short”. 

This rogue regime only came to its knees after the people of Zimbabwe fought it in a war that claimed an estimated 50 000 people.  Smith was not defeated by Catholics like Mugabe taking mass and saying their prayers, or other Christians grabbing Bibles and retreating to the hills to fast and pray.

Another thing to bear in mind is that God, being an eternal spirit, is not invested in this world as a long-term proposition because He knows it’s a doomed place.  In John 12:31 Christ said something very eye-opening, which shows why God is not as concerned about secular affairs as we sometimes assume He is.  “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out,” Jesus said. 

As far as goes this world, called the cosmos or world system in Greek, God has already pronounced and declared that it’s a doomed place which cannot continue.  It has been judged and therefore has no future, so why should God take it seriously?  We are the ones living in it and the conditions thereof will only be ameliorated at the behest of our determined efforts and application to bring about the changes we seek.

Africans are among the most religious people on the planet.  Yet Africa is also the poorest continent on the planet.  This alone shows that religion in and of itself is no panacea to poverty.  Poverty only answers to vision, determination and hard work – to wisdom, which is correct application of the right knowledge. 

The statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett) illustrate the emerging trend of dramatic Christian growth in Africa and supposes that in 2025 there will be 633 million Christians in Africa.  Islam is the other major religion in Africa alongside Christianity, with 41 percent of the population being Muslim, accounting for a quarter of the world’s Muslim population. 

Add to this the wide assortments of African traditional religion, and it is self-evident that Africa has more than enough religion to ensure its well-being if religion were really an aid to material prosperity. 

While Africa continues to languish in poverty with no clear end in sight, China has done the impossible within one generation, lifting 800 million people out of poverty without the assistance of religion, a feat the World Bank as described as historical. 

While we tot Bibles and Qurans in Africa singing praises while neglecting the prosperity principles outlined in our religious texts, China has since its president Deng Xiaoping launched his reform and opening up programme in 1978 pursued export-driven industrialisation, liberalised the private sector, welcomed foreign investment and embraced global trade.  The result has been virtual cessation of urban poverty, with the poor now being found only among China’s rural populations.

All these are things God will not do for a person or country.  Those seeking similar results must have a vision and then pursue that vision with application of proven principles and strategies, instead of idle fasting and prayer. 

The true Christian attitude as spelt out in the Bible will reveal that God has so irrevocably given the earth to humanity that Christ Himself had to become a Man in order to function among mankind and accomplish the eternal purpose of God.  The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ existed in heaven with God the Father before He was born of a virgin to become the saviour of the world. 

But because the earth has been given to humanity, He needed a human body to function in it, hence the Incarnation.  Incidentally, this is why demons – as persons without bodies – need to inhabit a physical body to have a broader range of expression and operation in the earth.

It is also self-evident in the Bible that God is more focused on building His eternal kingdom than He is on enhancing humanity’s prospects on the earth.  Make no mistake about it.  God loves humanity.  This is why He gave us His only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). 

But because He knows the world system in which we find ourselves is doomed, He will not invest in it more than is necessary to advance His kingdom and eternal purpose.  Our interests as humanity are our responsibility to safeguard, protect and advance.

That’s partly why Christ refused to be made a king by the Jews of His day.  “When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone” (John 6:15).  He knew why He came, for one thing; for another, He was not invested in this present world. 

This world is to God primarily a recruiting ground where members of the human family can sign up for admittance to the eternal kingdom of God by how they respond to the gospel.  If you want to see why some prayers for politics, economics and society are not answered, look at the attitude of the Godhead towards these matters.  Christ had an opportunity to be a king, and He fled! 

Also note that He said He did only what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19), which means that is also God the Father’s attitude towards politics and the secular realm.  They are primarily human affairs.

Then there is another factor to consider, and you will understand why most of the prayers for Zimbabwe have not made much difference.  Jesus Christ was born when his native country – Israel – was under Roman colonialism. 

This is why Christ and His apostles paid taxies to Caesar like everyone else as recorded in Matthew 22.  But Israel, which had been waiting for the promised Messiah to come, thought when the Messiah came He would play a political role and establish the country’s place of dominion among the nations, starting with ending Rome’s rule. 

Little did they know they were in for a shock!  Christ declared that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), and He proved it by leaving the colonial dominion of Rome over Israel intact even after His resurrection, to the consternation of even His own disciples. 

Notice in this passage how Christ did not even bother to address the question of Roman colonialism when He was asked about it by the disciples after His resurrection: “Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’  He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:6-9).  They asked Him about whether He would at that time restore Israel’s dignity by ending the colonial rule of Rome over it, but He did not address the question, choosing instead to point to where His primary interest has always been – the advancement and building of His kingdom!

The Bible does say that all authorities are set in place by God, but it does not say He does this in answer to prayer.  This is where topics like the sovereignty of God come into play, which is a story for another day.  We are told to pray for our leaders for sure, but not to change them.  Changing them is our responsibility through the ballot and other political systems. 

We are to pray for kings and all that are in authority primarily so that peace can prevail so that the gospel can be preached unhindered.  That is what Paul and the other apostles taught.  “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. 

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).  If we want to change political leaders because we are fed up of them, prayer and fasting is not going to do it for us!  Just look at Zimbabwe if you have any doubts.  The writer personally knows some Christians who used to fast and pray for Mugabe to die, but it never worked.  Mugabe died at 95, a ripe old age that even those who were praying for his demise will be fortunate to reach.

If we do not understand the limits of prayer, we will keep praying until we are blue in the face but will not have results to show for it.  Just because the Bible says all things are possible with God, and that all things are possible to the person who has faith, doesn’t mean prayer can do everything.  For instance, we know from scripture that we are supposed to pray for others. 

But the same Bible tells us there are people we cannot pray for under certain circumstances.  We are told in 1 John 5:16-17, ” If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.  All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.”  So we need theological sobriety in order to function profitably because it is theology that determines practice.  If our theology is lopsided, we are on the highway to frustration.

Another example of the limits of prayer is end-time prophecy.  You cannot stop by prayer and fasting the things God already said in the Bible will happen during the end times, such as droughts, famine, diseases, wars and natural disasters. 

It’s praying in vain, asking amiss!  That’s precisely why pandemics like Covid-19 can still break out and skill scores of people yet there are people praying and fasting in the land.  It’s outside the realm of prayer to stop such things from happening because it is written that they will happen.

The primary reason most of the prayers prayed for Zimbabwe and other countries have not yielded results is that they are trying to get God to do things He has not committed Himself through His Word to do.  God will not change politicians for us, He will not stop corruption for us, He will not run our institutions meticulously for us, He will not act with wisdom for us, He will not be conscientious for us in our dealings. 

You cannot eat your food and expect the next person to go to the toilet for you.  The heaven, even the heavens, belong to God, but the earth He has given to the children of men.  We cannot do God’s duties, and He will not do our duties.

You cannot draw a parallel between Israel in the Old Testament and modern Zimbabwe, a secular state.  Israel in the Old Testament was a theocracy, a religious state, which is why God could say to it, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  His people back then referred to Israel, which was chosen to be called by His name.  Today we have secular states, and we are told that Satan is in charge of the world order. “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19).

The situation in Zimbabwe brings to mind the story of the defeat of Israel at Ai, recorded in Joshua 7.  When Israel got routed and humiliated by the Amorites, Joshua and the elders rent their clothes in dismay and spent the day on their faces before God.  But God said to Joshua, in Joshua 7:10, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?” 

You would think God would be pleased by someone showing humility by lying prostrate before Him.  But there is a place of prayer and fasting, then there is a place for action and moving towards what we want in wisdom.  So God told Joshua to stop the religious act and do something about the situation.

It’s time to stop frustrating and unscriptural prayers and do what we have to do to fix our mess.  It begins with fixing our thinking and discarding lame theology.  No, prayer cannot do anything or everything.  Otherwise God would have required us to always be praying and not do anything else.  Then everything would be fine