Avaris to Avanim
Pursuing Holiness

A Defense of Prayer in Times of Tragedy

At the time of this writing, America has undergone yet another public mass shooting - the most recent, occuring just four days ago in Orlando, Florida, which is the largest mass shooting in modern American history, leaving more than 50 dead.  By some definitions, we've had 133 mass shootings so far this year alone.

The Perception

As with past shootings, politicians, religious leaders, and lay members alike have been quick to offer up and call for prayer.  If so many are praying after these events, why are they still happening?  Does it not rationally make sense that God is either not listening or is actively ignoring these prayers?  This is the conclusion and response of many commenters in public discussions on the internet and has been expressed elaborately in Samantha Bee's reflection (explicit language warning) or in cute memes shared and retweeted thousands of times: 

These sentiments all boil down to: God is not listening and prayer is a cop out to make the person feel better for not doing anything about it.  Of course, we could highlight the fact that some of those who are praying are actually doing something in these situations or that those who chastise people for praying about it likely are doing the very same thing - making themselves feel better for doing nothing by blaming someone else for inaction.  Rather, it seems more helpful to talk about what prayer does.

The Purpose

In these scenarios, prayer is seen as a selfish act of the petitioner that allows the petitioner to absolve themselves from any action.  In this narrative, they are deferring to God to handle the situation for them and then moving on as though unaffected.  In fairness to the latter, this is actually what most people do anyway, prayer or not, after making expressions of pity followed by self-righteous comments about their gun control views.  This isn't a reflection about true prayer as much as it is the state of our culture in general.

Rather, when considering the Lord's prayer, there is a clear call to action and theosis.  The Lord's prayer is, in form, a contract or covenant in some parts.  "...as we forgive those who trespass against us."  Jesus uses prayer to heal people, drive out demons, and manage his disciples.  Jesus' example on the use of prayer gets at the very heart of James' exhortation:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

James 2:15-18 (ESV)

You don't see a divorce between prayer and action in the New Testament - in fact, James argues that action is evidence of faith! 

Wesley's Covenant Prayer

Virtually every Christian tradition has an example prayer that demonstrates a focus on action.  The Desert Fathers primarily viewed prayer as a means of engaging in spiritual warfare against demons, injustice, and evil in the world.  Their sayings being preserved for monastic life have influenced the Church, in both East and West, toward this notion, even if no longer emphasized as such.

This prayer of John Wesley's is preserved in the British Methodist Church and is used at every annual conference meeting of theirs to this day.  Like the Lord's prayer and James's exhortation, the prayer is a call to action as much as it is for introspection:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

(The Methodist Church in Britain)

Reading this prayer, it is not surprising how the early Methodists got their name.  It was given to them as a pejorative because of their "methodical" insistence on strict Christian disciplines and tending to social causes (such as visiting those in debtors' prisons twice a week).  For Methodists, as well as other Christians, prayer is not simply a call for God to do something about a situation, but for God to stir the petitioner to do something about it! 

Therefore, if you want to see where prayers are being answered, look for where people are working to help the victims of these tragedies, the ones who are advocating for peace, the ones who are encouraging dialog among groups in conflict, and the ones who are advocating for the marginalized.  As an example within Methodism, the United Methodist Church, among others, has been very active in responding to mass shootings and advocating for policies to reduce gun violence.

In summation, we need more, not less, prayer in these times if we ever hope that as a society we will ever "do something about it."

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