The Protestant reformer Martin Luther once said, “Don’t lie when you pray.” His words may be more legend than real, but their content still rings very true. And they’re good to remember as we prepare for next week’s holiday (January 18) honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King taught us to be honest about our faith and the convictions that should flow from it. He took Scripture seriously — especially its passages on forgiveness, love and justice — and he acted on it, refusing to count the cost.
Too many of us who call ourselves Christians, especially in a wealthy country like ours, fall into the habit of living our religious beliefs as if they were moral slogans. We use our faith for comfort when we feel sad or when we suffer. But many of us never really carry the implications of believing in Jesus Christ beyond that. We’re embarrassed to share him with others. We ignore or water down his teachings when it comes to our racial attitudes, or our economy, or our politics. And that suits the modern state very well, because when our faith remains private, it has no public consequences. The callousness of the world can go on as usual, and undisturbed.
The trouble with such faith is this: It’s a form of lying. Dr. King understood that very well. He saw clearly that the greatest enemy of God in every age doesn’t come in the shape of the world or the flesh or the devil. It comes in the tepid faith of God’s people. If we want to know why the world isn’t a better place, we only need to look in the mirror.
The Epistle of James tells us to “be doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22), because “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17). God didn’t make us to be “good enough” human beings. He made us to be saints. He made us for greatness and heroism. Every human heart, Christian or not, instinctively knows that.
God calls each of us to transform the world, and if we don’t live the way God intended us to live, the world will remain as it is — a place of conflict, prejudice and violence.
Dr. King once said, “If you want to change people, you have to love them; and they need to know you love them.” In my 45 years as a priest, I’ve never forgotten those words. Dr. King loved well, and by the power of that love, he helped to change the heart of a nation. He returned hatred with forgiveness, and by the power of that forgiveness, he showed that real strength and real justice come from love, not violence.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice — or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” Dr. King answered those questions by the example of his life. And the witness he left us invites every one of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, to do the same.
Don’t lie when you pray. We need to live honestly. We need to act on the convictions we say we believe — racial equality, economic justice, the sanctity of the human person from the unborn child to the elderly; from conception to natural death. The biggest lie of the last 100 years is that individuals can’t make a difference; that our problems are too big and complicated for ordinary people to do anything about them.
Dr. King proved that God can use us to do anything — anything, even touch the conscience of the greatest power on earth — if a person fights for the truth in a spirit of love. That’s what the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., means. That’s what discipleship in Jesus Christ means. That’s a lesson we all need to remember, this year and every year.