As we ache in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, I see a reaction spreading amongst our society that makes me grab a deep breath as it falls upon my eyes and ears.
“Prayer isn’t working.”
I admit I am deluged with my own questions. It feels truly churlish to fling theological essays at times like this.
But to attack the reputation of prayer? Even as an honest Christian willing to question, that’s one place my ruminations have never taken me.
Now, I’m all for making laws to protect ourselves, and I’m all for making my hands and feet part of the solution. But having taught for several years and watched my students regularly flout anti-suffering efforts like the speed limit and drunk driving laws, for no better reason than “YOLO!!!”, I question whether human effort can fully insulate us. We are flawed. We need help.
I’m only just starting to learn prayer as a discipline, as God calls me to it. But I’ve learned just enough to know that there are reasons to find hope in prayer, to continue turning there – and that we can never judge its effectiveness by looking at the chaos of the post-Curse world. There’s just too much that is hidden.
Even as heartbreak and anger encroach our hearts, I humbly ask for open minds as I offer what God is teaching me.
1. Prayer isn’t ineffective; it’s under-used.
Prayer isn’t well-understood right now. Its role, its operation, even the degree of tenacity to which God calls us (Luke 18:1)…it’s lost knowledge. Jesus’ disciples said they needed to be taught to pray (Luke 11:1). That’s one thing that isn’t happening in the church right now. At least not correctly. It’s either “pray for God’s blessings!” or, in a run-to-the-other-extreme response, the teaching that God is not moved by the prayers of puny humans and that it’s only really for our soul’s benefit. Both un-Biblical, both crippling. In lieu of that, we pray silently, distractedly, glancingly, timidly, or half-heartedly.
Some of prayer isn’t meant to be understood lest we turn it into formula, devoid of relationship with God. But I am convinced that the church has been graciously given prayer as a genuine weapon to bring genuine change – and that it’s leaving that weapon in its sheath far too often.
2. Are you listening for God’s answer?
I can’t help but notice that many complaints about the impotence of prayer come from people who don’t believe in God in the first place. That doesn’t work. You can’t deny God exists and then complain that you aren’t getting the benefits of his kingdom.
In their writings, the theologians of the twentieth century often speak of praying over our daily moves and listening for a response. For, like, hours. Do you do that? How many of us submit our lives and decisions to God with the expectation that he will actually reply? How many of us listen in our hearts, search Scripture, or pay attention to repeating themes and words in our daily encounters, in order to hear an answer? Could it be argued that God actually is speaking, and we’re missing a great deal of it?
If you get frustrated here at God’s policy of speaking in a still, small voice, I understand. He could make himself louder if he wanted. Nonetheless, the line of communication is there, and honestly, most of us are too busy or captivated by Netflix to really listen even to our spouses, let alone the Savior. Perhaps the problem is not with God after all.
3. We and God are not the only two parties.
Daniel 10 comes as a major theological can of worms for some of us. It tells of an angel, sent immediately in response to Daniel’s fervent prayers for a vision interpretation, getting locked down for three weeks by a “prince of the Persian kingdom”. In other words, demonic opposition.
“God said no” is only one possible explanation to unanswered prayer. Whether we like it or not, the Bible teaches that we have an enemy in this world who is determined to, and in the present age is allowed to, “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). The fact that Satan has gotten precisely zero blame for the Orlando tragedy shows just how reluctant we are to accept his existence. Scripture shows no such hesitation.
It also teaches that this enemy can be resisted. But you can’t defeat an enemy you won’t acknowledge. Once we do that, one of the weapons God has given us to defeat Satan’s schemes is prayer (Mark 9:29).
4. You don’t really know what prayer is accomplishing.
Prayer is sometimes like the CIA or an offensive line in football – known for its failures, not its successes.
Although the tragedy in Orlando is awful, would I be insensitive to point out the number of tragedies that have not occurred? The number of terrorist attacks that have been averted in recent years, the lives that were saved by a Marine present at the Orlando club? The good works being done across the world, both by Christians and unbelievers? Consider that in all our years of conflict, humanity has never experienced a nuclear war. And we have come very close. Both sides, both by accident and purpose. Look up the stories. So close, in fact, that a history of our nuclear age very much resembles a species walking a fine tightrope.
One might say that prayer is not a substitute for actually doing something. This is true. But let me flip that question: might a human answer actually be a divine one?
We live on such secular foundation these days that we assume man’s movement and God’s movement are separate. Yet God doesn’t seem to see it that way. One of the New Testament’s most celebrated ideas, one of the foremost explanations for God’s seeming lack of “pizazz”, is that he is committed, in this age, to working through his church. And the church has a habit of dropping the ball. Yet he does not fire the church, will not fire the church; he insists on our maturing, on our actions having meaning.
James 2 puts it this way: never pray a prayer to which you can be the answer.
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17)
When people come through for each other, I see it as God’s answer. When men invent and secure and advance, I see it as God’s answer. In a world whose spiritual realm is revealed just enough so that we may believe, but hidden just enough so that we must believe, can we really claim to know the “why” of everything? What if much more is going on that we could possibly see?
I have no illusion that these thoughts will easily balm everyone’s soul. They don’t balm my own. But I know one thing: God is absolutely furious about what is happening on this earth. The Bible is full of his anger and sorrow over the tragedies unfolding around us. And he has given us weapons to fight it.
Prayer is not dull. Prayer is the greatest weapon we have. Oswald Chambers said, “Prayer does not equip us for greater works— prayer is the greater work.” When we say “all we can do now is prayer”, we show that we’ve got our bread buttered on the wrong side.
God has given us prayer. Don’t give up on it.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. (Luke 18:1)