The doctor says she has cancer. We pray.
He was killed by a drunk driver. We pray.
A natural disaster kills thousands half-way around the globe. We pray.
So it should come as no surprise that when yet another mass-shooting hit the news that people of faith hit their knees. Not only that, but we used social media to express our prayerful thoughts and concerns for the victims of another senseless tragedy. Tweets and status updates poured in expressing our prayers.
But this time it was different. This time there was a push back. We saw a glimmer of it with the Paris shootings when a cartoonist for the Charlie-Hebdo newspaper expressed that France didn’t need or want our prayers. But that was small in comparison to what I have seen over the last 24-hours. Newspaper headlines declare that prayer is “not working” and that to do so was just to offer up “empty platitudes.”
Twitter users have carried on the theme. I have read tweets to the effect of,
“Put up or shut-up.”
“Religion is what got us into this mess, so keep it to yourself.”
“Talk is cheap, and so are your prayers.”
As I read these tweets and headlines I began to wonder, what is the reasoning behind all this backlash? Have we fallen further into post-Christian culture than I care to admit, or is it something more? I figure one or more of the following are possible reasons for this lashing out against prayer:
- People are hurt and angry. We have all said something we regret in a moment of pain or anger. When we feel defenseless we strike at whoever is closest, and in this case it may happen to be those of us who are drawn to the hurting in order to pray for them.
- People are divided politically. The headline in the New York Daily News, was just as focused on bashing Republican presidential candidates as it was on bashing prayer. Whether it’s true or not, the perception of many is that the pro-gun Republican right is synonymous with American Christianity. Therefore an attack on a political party is often wrapped in a religious attack to create buzz and sell newspapers.
- People don’t understand prayer. When divorced from faith and a community of believers prayer can seem pointless, trivial and even patronizing. We should not expect non-Christians to understand what we mean when we say, “I’m praying for you.”
- People are misinformed. All of these attacks on prayer are supporting a false narrative, namely that prayer is somehow exclusive from action. But as we will see that is not an accurate view of prayer, and if there are Christians that have that view, then they need to be informed as well.
A Biblical View of Prayer
The book of James has a lot to say about faith and prayer. Jesus’ half-brother had a full understanding of how prayer and action needed to accompany each other, so it would benefit us greatly if we took some time to learn the lessons James has to teach us.
Lesson One: Faith Must Be Accompanied by Action
“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.” -James 2:15-17
If we are faithful enough to pray, we must be faithful enough to act. What many of these attacks on prayer are ignoring is that Christians are often the first to react to tragedies. It was a church that opened up her doors to be used as a reuniting point for the families of this most recent shooting. When counselors are provided at a school after a mass shooting, many of those counselors are the ministers from local churches. Christian organizations like IDES are the first on the scenes of natural disasters to make sure the dispossessed have a place to stay and a warm meal for the next several weeks. So yes, we pray, but we also act. To say the two are mutually exclusive is to misrepresent what Christians are doing when they pray.
Lesson Two: Prayer is the Appropriate First Reaction to Tragedy
“Is anyone among you suffering. Let him pray.” -James 5:13
While James does teach that faith needs to be accompanied by action, our first response to a painful situation should be one of prayer. We should pray for the families affected as well as our own wisdom as we seek to reach out and help the hurting. We should pray that in all things God is glorified by our actions and the actions of the Church. We should not feel shame when our first reaction is to pray for those who suffer. It is a Biblical mandate that we do so. Why? Because of the final lesson James has for us.
Lesson Three: Prayer is Effective
“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” -James 5:16b
James fully believed in the power of prayers of the saints. So should we. For many of us who are removed from theses tragedies by thousands of miles, praying IS doing something. Often times we pray first because we don’t know what else to do. I have found in my own life that answers come when I pray, but not before. Finally prayer is effective because we serve a God who hears us! Not only does He hear, He acts. But more often than not, He sends His people to act for Him, which brings us back to the first lesson: prayer must be accompanied by action.
So, by all means pray. But also act, and in doing so we show the world our faith by how we pray and behave.