A phrase that has become a trigger if ever a phrase has. Thoughts & prayers. Meaningless to some, a knee-jerk response to others and more powerful than any action to still others.
People, including myself, have become increasingly frustrated by what is rapidly becoming a pathetic platitude in response to a horror like a mass shooting. It is being seen as useless because after so many mass shootings one wonders at the point of prayer.
A cynic would say “just imagine the number of shootings if people weren’t praying” and such a person should be shouted down for the sheer stupidity of such an argument.
The question remains – what is the point of prayer? Why bother?
The writer C.S. Lewis once said “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me“.
The brilliance of what Lewis is saying here cannot be understated.
Prayer does not change God. This is a theologically sound statement given the nature of God verses the nature of us.
There are many types of prayer throughout scripture but they can boil down to two types of prayers – asking God to intervene and do something concrete in the world and prayers of expression that bring to God our hopes, fears, anger etc. not unlike the proverbial patient speaking from the couch to the silent psychiatrist only to get up afterward and thank the doctor for their help when they haven’t opened their mouths.
As with all things biblical I look to Christ as a model and an interpretive lens through which I read and seek understanding.
Prior to his torture and death in the garden of Gethsemane Christ prays – he very specifically prays that God would allow this pain to pass him by but “your will be done not mine”.
In essence it would seem Christ is praying that God would cause a thing not to happen. The result of the prayer would seem to be that nothing happens and Christ dies but in reality what happens is that Christ is emboldened through prayer to face what is to come.
God was not changed. Christ was.
The essence of prayer in light of the fact that Christians see themselves as Christ on earth is that prayer does not magically bring God to earth to do the things we are incapable of doing. Rather prayer is supposed to change us that we might do the very things we are asking, hoping, wanting God to do.
Sadly much of this has been lost on modern Christians who have fallen into the trap of believing that prayer is a magic charm to compel God to do what we do not have the courage to do.
This causes people to immediately respond to tragedy by saying “sending my thoughts and prayers to you” and it rightly triggers many to respond “shove your thoughts and prayers up your ass“.
When faced with such anger the average person of faith will often simply and patronizingly respond that “they simply don’t understand and believe in the power of prayer…blah blah blah...”.
When you pray that God would feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit and heal the sick and imprisoned, comfort those who have lost loved ones, do something about gun violence – these prayers are to enable a change in YOU that you might go out and DO these things as Christ would do them. Not to sit at home and say “well I’ve done my part – I prayed!”
James 5:13-16 says “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Notice that the sick are to ask the elders for prayer and anointing with oil. It does not say “pray quietly alone and anoint yourself with oil“. The sick ask for prayer so that the community can know they are sick and they can use oil (as was part of the medical practice in those times Christian or otherwise) as a healing balm. Today if a man came to me I would pray and anoint him with science and modern medicine. This would be keeping with the spirit and intent of the verses. It is not a lack of faith in the power of God, it is faith in the power of God to change you and do the things.
Then you run headfirst into verse 17 –
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”
After reading countless commentaries, re-reading the verse a thousand different ways and praying 🙂 you come to realize a trend in scripture that is witnessed here in this verse – God intervenes to do the things we cannot do. God does not intervene in the things we can do; in the things we should do; in the things we MUST do.
The endless streams of what feel like unanswered prayer to resolve the gun crisis tell some that there is no God. It tells me one thing – this is our problem to solve. Not only that, it is a problem that can be solved if the will existed to do so.
Whether you are atheist, agnostic, or a person of faith we can all find common ground on this point – the gun crisis in the United States can and must be resolved by people. No amount of praying is going to cause God to magically intervene and fix the problem – this is not faithlessness but an accurate reflection of scripture.
By all means remember and act on the words of Philippians 4:6 which says “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
But in doing so remember also WHY we pray and WHAT our responsibility is – to become Christ here on Earth and DO what needs to be done seeking to bring about the kingdom of God not in metaphor or in some suicidal desire to see the world destroyed and remade by God.
What about children dying of inoperable cancer? Why does God ignore these things and allow them to happen? Let us read John 11:1-44 –
“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
To the original question – what about children dying of inoperable cancer? Why does God ignore them? We cannot say. Again, some would say – it is because there is no God and we cannot argue with them. Christ can speak and answer the why for Lazarus – for the rest of us – we cannot. In this we are not Christ.
Remember that sometimes there are things we cannot do and things God will not do.
There is no comfort to be found in these moments and to seek and try to provide it is not only disingenuous but dangerous. How dare we speak out of our own fear and faithlessness into a vacuum left by God in people’s lives?
Sometimes we must live in the discomfort of the silence and simply be a presence while people rage and weep at us, the world and God; as they should; as is their right. It is not for us to presume to take this away.
One final word.
Stop trumpeting your wonderful thoughts and prayers to the world. Stop tweeting them. Stop facebooking, hashtagging and instagraming them. Stop it. It pisses people off and for good reason according to Matthew 6:1-13 –
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’