Yesterday I wrote about Christianese and as part of my research I came across the phrase ‘hedge of protection’ which I haven’t heard for years. It reminded me of a recent game of Call of Duty with my son (I really needed some protection that day!). I took cover behind a hedge and was surprised when he shot me through it. It’s a sad moment in life when your children (although he is taller than me now) can beat you at video games. It’s an even sadder moment when you think that a hedge will protect you from bullets.
Do hedges really offer good protection? We have a hedge between our front garden and the pavement but we had to take a tree swing down because the hedge didn’t stop kids coming in and using it. A 10ft electrified wall with barbed wire, now that would be effective protection, so why ask for a hedge? The inspiration comes from Job 1.10:
Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.
This language is over 3000 years old – the days before 10ft electrified walls. There is nothing magical or especially spiritual about using a metaphor that was mentioned in the Bible (I wish more Christian song writers could grasp this), so why not use a better one. If you want to pray for protection avoid shrubbery why not ask for a spiritual flack jacket a tank or a nuclear bunker?
The hedge prayer leaves me with the question, is it even Biblical to pray for protection? In the Bible verse I mentioned, the devil reminds God that he is protecting Job but the reference is about God choosing to protect Job in a certain way not about anyone praying for a hedge of protection. It’s worrying if we construct a belief about prayer from a part of the Bible that has nothing to do with prayer! It’s terrifying if we make protection central to out prayer lives whilst ignoring what the Bible does clearly teach about prayer. How many instances can you think of where people in the Bible asked for protection? Did Jesus ever ask it for himself or teach his disciples to ask for it?
The Bible says God is our protector eg Psalm 46.1, 121 etc. If he has promised something, why are we asking him to give it? Usually you only ask someone to fulfil a promise when you believe they are not doing what they promised or if you don’t have confidence in them. Rather than asking God to be our refuge, perhaps we should thank him that he is. A prayer for help shouldn’t be a moment of desperation (I’ve tried everything else, so I may as well ask God) it should be a moment of confidence in the all-powerful God (I’m not hoping he might be my refuge, he is already).
What does God’s protection looks like. For Job the first part of his life did involve protection from poverty and problems but in the next part he suffered greatly and we learn that faithful followers of God are not guaranteed physical or financial protection. You could ask why God didn’t protect Jesus from his death on the cross but Jesus’ death is central to God’s rescue plan – through suffering and an act of vulnerability humanity can be saved. In the early church two leaders have contrasting experiences of protection, Paul talks about God’s miraculous protection from death but Stephen is stoned to death. God’s protection involves him being with us, sometimes God keeps us safe from physical harm, disease etc but this isn’t guaranteed.
The hedge of protection type of prayer and it’s popularity (even if you do use cooler language) shows us that we want the good stuff. We want the first part of Job’s life but not the second. We want to be physically safe, well off financially and healthy because if we are honest these are the most important things to us.
The two closest examples I can get to Jesus praying for protection are in the Lords prayer ‘deliver us from evil’ and in his prayer asking God to protect his followers from the evil one (John 17.5). It is interesting that neither of these are about physical safety, rather they are about staying away from evil as we follow God. We become Christians through an act of repentance (this means to change our mind or to turn around). Is our priority to be physically safe or to live in such a way that we are becoming the people who God wants us to be by staying turned away from evil and towards God? It’s not wrong to want both, but which is more important?
Two of the early church leaders were arrested for their faith. Upon their release, the church met to pray. If this was in the UK today we would give thanks in prayer and then we would begin to talk about how to respond, we could write to our MP, launch a campaign or start a petition. We would demand safety and we would want respect but mostly I think we would feel sorry for ourselves and complain about what an evil world we live in. How did the early church respond? They prayed:
And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4.29-31)
They were aware of the threats and the danger but they wanted to pray for courage to tell more people about Jesus and also for more power from God to see miracles. Instead of their own protection they wanted to put the kingdom of God first. God empowered them with his Spirit, he was pleased that their priorities were right. God loves all of humanity and it delighted him that these Christians wanted to focus on taking his love to everyone even if it wasn’t the safest thing to do.
I don’t think it is wrong to ask for protection, after all God wants us to be honest in our prayers but should it be one of the main things we pray about? God wants a church that shares his priorities. Will we put God and his kingdom first instead of just focusing on our own needs and preferences?