Tuesday, February 17, 2015

May we pray for the deceased and why?

For this week's newspapers, I addressed a question about praying for our fellow Christians who have died:

Q:  Are Christians allowed to pray for people who have already died?  If so, why would they do so?

God frequently invites His children to come to Him in prayer for the things they need.  He also invites Christians to pray for one another, and not merely for themselves.  In many quarters of Christianity, it is recognized that God’s Church is not enclosed within a boundary that limits it only to this physical world, but that the souls of the faithful departed are also just as much a part of that Church. 

The Church’s liturgies recognize this when they make statements such as that we worship “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” or when funeral liturgies pray for God to “Give to Your whole church in heaven and on earth Your light and Your peace…”

So, just as the Church itself is not limited to the souls of the living, prayer is not necessarily bound by that limitation.  However, it is a practice to be approached with caution, because of the subtle ways in which it could go astray. 

For example, in segments of Christianity which believe there are potential destinations for the deceased other than eternal rest and eternal punishment, such as a purgatory, it is common to offer prayers in order to speed the deceased’s trip from such middle states into the Lord’s presence.  For those of us who do not hold to a third destination such as purgatory, it would be inappropriate to offer prayers that seek to change the destination of deceased persons, since it is held that their reward or punishment are already determined, based on verses like Hebrews 9:27 and the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel.

We often teach about prayer that there are things which God has forbidden that will not be granted through prayer, things which God has promised, which He will grant whether we pray for them or not, and things God has neither promised nor forbidden which He will answer in whatever way is most beneficial for us, since His wisdom is higher than our own.  For Christians who do not believe in a purgatory, yet still find it allowable to pray for their departed brothers and sisters in the faith, it falls into the second of those categories. 

Just as children might ask their parents for things the parents had already determined to give, Christians might pray that God would fulfill the promises that He had given in Baptism and His Word to forgive the sins of those who trust in Him and grant them eternal life, in light of the fact that they still await the Resurrection of the Last Day, even though their destination is already secure. 

We pray similarly in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray that God’s name would be holy, His kingdom come, or that His will would be done.  These things will be done even without our prayer, but we pray for them anyway – not to change God’s intentions, but because we believe our Father’s promise and acknowledge it through prayer. 

This is similar to what we do when we confess our sins and receive forgiveness or when we receive the Lord’s Supper.  Christians do not build up a debt of sin, which they periodically purge by Confession or Communion.  Instead, they who rely on Jesus already live in a state of perpetual forgiveness, but continue to receive from the Lord through these acts, because they are the thing to which He has attached His promise. 

Likewise, because our Lord has promised these things and invited us to pray, we pray for the things He has promised, even for those whose souls rest with the Lord, but still await the fullness of eternal Life which will come at the Resurrection. 

Christians are not required to pray for their departed faithful in order that they receive the Lord’s promises, nor are they forbidden from doing so because their reward is already secure.  Instead, they trust what the Lord has promised for them, and many choose to express that trust to their Father at His invitation to prayer in anticipation of the day in which both those presently alive and those previously departed will be reunited in eternal, resurrected life. 

Part 1 of a two-part answer on this topic.  Check back soon for the conclusion of this answer.

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