The Purpose of Prayer


Night Stars Sky PrayerIt’s been a dark, violent season. Capping it off, the San Bernardino shooting in California: With 14 dead, it’s the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

As usual in the wake of mass shootings, pundits were quick to man the social media battle lines, claiming, before facts even became clear, that the shooting confirmed their own beliefs. But gun control advocates were more than usually vicious in demands to act, employing a tactic christened “prayer shaming” by the Atlantic. Directed (it was claimed) primarily at politicians, the culprits archly condemned those who expressed their sorrow by sending “thoughts and prayers” rather than actions and votes.

Senator Chris Murphy declared, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.” Zack Ford of ThinkProgress sneered, “If you think talking to the voice in your head is helping anyone but yourself, you’re wrong.” Others leapt in, and it all came to a head when the December 3 NY Daily News cover arrived splashed with the inflammatory headline:

“GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS: As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.

There are many obvious objections here — for one thing, many of the same people parrot calls to action without understanding in the least what they wish to propose. These catchphrases (it doesn’t get much vaguer than “common-sense gun laws“) are just as useless as empty pieties. But despite its anger, discourtesy, and flippant sacrilege, the headline expresses an understandable frustration. In the wake of tragedy, we all desire to take action in some way. We wish for justice and healing, preferably in that order. However, while it’s quite true that some substitute meaningless banalities for action, prayer and action are not mutually exclusive. They are not opposites, but rather complement one another.

Prayer should compel us to action

The first thing we can change is ourselves. Shadowlands screenwriter William Nicholson wrote that prayer “doesn’t change God; it changes me.” The shooting in San Bernardino should compel our attention and self-examination through prayer. For one thing, it is a grim reminder of our own mortality and the fragility of the Western bubble. Death is an ever-present reality, and we must live with this in mind. But also, and this is where prayer comes in, we must remember the healing that can come through death, and that through Christ death has been defeated (1 Cor. 15:26).

It should also shape our plans for future action. Shannon Johnson, a Christian who died protecting a co-worker, had, according to his girlfriend, talked about mass shootings before, planning what he would do. Now is that time for us to pray for that courage, to plan to live recklessly.

And as the Daily News thinks of reaction only in the terms of policy: Well, let us, too, pray that our policy decisions should both save lives and serve justice. Our prayer should change us, change our lives, and change our decisions, leading us to humility, courage, and wisdom in the face of death.

Prayer should petition God’s action

God answers prayer. In the story of the persistent widow, Jesus says: “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:7-8). This is not merely for arm-chair generals: Prayer is important on the ground, too. The Atlantic points out that a woman hiding from gunfire texted her father: “Pray for us,” and evacuees joined together to pray.

When God doesn’t act, prayer provides an avenue of lament

Why does God not end suffering now? Why does he linger? That is not a blasphemous question to ask. As the Psalmist laments, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). The waiting, the wondering, the longing for justice is a frequent theme of the Bible.

But the important, the essential, conclusion of all Christian lament must be an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty, underlined by the blood of the cross. The Daily News headline was not blasphemous because it wondered why God did not act — it was blasphemous because, like Pilate (John 18:38), it wasn’t even interested in sticking around to hear God’s answer. That answer is the cross. No more, no less. God’s answer to Job was one of omniscience and omnipotence. His omniscience a reminder that there was a purpose – he knows all things, he knows what he’s doing. His omnipotence upholds all life — he is good. God’s answer to Job was the cross — it was the manifestation of God’s goodness and the fulfillment of his purpose.

We remember that when we pray. We remember that God is fixing this. He’s fixing us.