Thursday, December 3, 2015

Is Prayer Worthless?

This question of whether prayers are worthless is, unfortunately, a major news item as a result of the attack in San Bernardino, CA, yesterday. Before moving into a discussion of it, however, the first thing to do is to offer a prayer in spite of those who doubt its efficacy.

Father, we know that all power and glory belong to you. You could stop these tragedies from occurring if you so chose, and we struggle to understand why you do not. But throughout our lives and all history, we see the ways you have been faithful, and we ask for the strength to have faith in you. Please comfort those who have lost loved ones with the knowledge that you also watched your Son suffer and die, and that life can be found through death. Heal those who have been harmed, and must live with the scars of this terror. Forgive this nation for turning from you, the cause for our troubles so few are willing to admit. And Father, in this war in which we find ourselves, give us the will to fight as we must. But more importantly, change the hearts of our enemies so they might see their evil, repent of it, and come to know you in truth. We can only have peace through you, and that is what we desire. This is our prayer, by faith in you and in the name of our Savior, Christ Jesus. Amen.

Criticism of Prayer

If you follow the news through the most Progressive outlets and social media, you have probably seen the #thoughtsandprayers discussion. Or else, it is likely you saw it when it was criticized by conservatives. When reports of the assault first went out, a number of politicians’ first response was to offer condolences in the form of “thoughts and prayers” to the people of San Bernardino.

To a number of Progressives and antitheists this was an unforgivable sin, especially in the immediate aftermath when they had themselves convinced­—in the complete absence of evidence—this attack was the work of white Christians. The assaults on prayer were loud and numerous, and for one reason. The critics, who want nothing to do with God, believe prayer is ineffectual. Therefore, they do not want anyone to pray.

The narrative changed a bit as more of the facts became known. It was not prayer itself they were condemning, they said, but prayer without action. That is fair enough, as I will show later, but to say that was all they meant is a lie. With lines like “God isn’t fixing this” (NY Daily News) and “How many dead people did those thoughts and prayers bring back to life?” (Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas), it is clear that prayer itself is the target. They see it as completely worthless, not merely as ineffectual without complimentary action.

Problems with the Criticism

There are a few problems with this perspective, however. Most obviously, it misses the point of why we pray. We will get into that later. There are a few lesser problems with the criticism also worth mentioning first. For one, the prayer detractors have also been vitriolic, casting hate and blame rather than offering constructive alternatives. They have treated it as an opportunity to be condescending, which is hardly helpful or persuasive.

As for alternatives, we saw those in Paris a few weeks ago. The French and British deserve credit for beginning military maneuvers against ISIS in Syria. Barack Obama deserves similar credit for operations that began even before the Paris attack. But they feel shallow when accompanied with platitudes about carrying out a planned conference on global warming as though it were an act of courage and defiance, and with promises to accept even more refugees from places that breed the type of hate which inspires these attacks. And as numerous other commentators have noted, it is the height of hypocrisy to criticize prayer while playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” and spreading photos of yourself holding placards covered in hashtags.  

Speaking of effectiveness, what is the point? If prayer does nothing because there is no God, then why bother seeking justice or safety at all? If the world is truly chaotic, there is no purpose to life and no way to truly tell right from wrong. It would all depend on your perspective. What is the difference between the civilized and the bloodthirsty? To a callous universe, there is none. If you believe your life is meaningless, then you need to stop whining over what I believe about mine.

The final problem with the attack on prayer is that it has the wrong target. Christians, who pray for peace and comfort, are condemned for it. What about Muslims? Many of them have also come out to pray for the victims. Where is the blame for them? And what about the radical Muslims who surely pray for the opportunity to inflict death and destruction? Where are the calls for them to stop praying? No, that is reserved for those who dare to cry out to Jesus. In a sense, it is not even about prayer at all. It is about hatred for us, because that is what the world does. It hates the Gospel, because the Gospel makes them accountable and tells them they cannot save themselves. Salvation only comes through surrender, and they don’t want to hear it.

Purposes of Prayer

That is enough said about the enemies of Christian prayer, though. What about prayer itself? What is it for? If it is worth doing, why?

Put simply, prayer is about reaching out. It is about trust. Certainly, prayer rarely leads to immediate, automatic results of the type we desire. But that is not its purpose. God already knows what we require. He knows it far better than we do, and though He does not always give us what we want, He always gives us what we need. In prayer, we come to know that. As 1 John 5:14, 15 tell us, we pray because we know we are heard. If we know we are heard, then we can know God is in control and go forward in confidence.

Prayer is not just about inspiring confidence, however. It is also effectual. God moves in His own timing, but He moves on our behalf. In Exodus 3:9, 10, God calls Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt because, as He said, “the cry of the children of Israel has come to Me.” The Israelites had been slaves for generations by that point, and had cried out for centuries. But the Lord had not been ignoring them. He was moved by their plight, and acted on their behalf because they trusted Him to do so. He answered their prayers, giving us a model for continuing to cry out to Him even when we do not see the results.

Finally, prayer does not request a response from God alone. We must move, as well. When we pray, it should be in repentance. We all sin against God, choosing to be selfish and pursuing our own ends instead of His. We will never reach out to God until we acknowledge this and seek His forgiveness, and He will not help us until we do (2 Chronicles 7:14). The only way for our prayers to really be worthless is if they come from hearts that are not turned toward our heavenly Father.

Limits of Prayer

Prayer does have value. God is there, and He does hear. We can trust that He does, and believe that He is ordering all things for good in the end. Therefore we need to offer Him our trust and turn away from the worthless things of the world which draw us away from Him. With that said, there are limits to prayer. It means little without action on our parts, just the critics point out. And they would deserve credit for the observation, if it had not been contained in Scripture for millennia.

Words are easy, and without accompanying action, they are worthless. They betray what you really believe. If you do not do what you say, you are faithless and untrustworthy. God Himself says in Isaiah 29:13, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” What does it matter to talk the talk if you do not walk the walk?

The same point occurs in James 2:15–17 and 1 John 3:15–19. Words are cheap. Condolences and well wishes are easy to offer. They do not display love unless they are offered “in deed and in truth.” It makes no sense for anyone to criticize Christians for praying, but it makes even less sense for Christians to think they can pray and then not do anything else.

Call to Prayer

Of course, that begs the question: what am I going to do in the face of horrors like the one faced yesterday? We all need to ask that question, and think through the answer carefully. It is pointless to focus on the availability of firearms. Their possession is protected by the Constitution, and the need for them is well established. Trying to restrict the rights of the law-abiding citizens of this nation will not do anything to stop evil men and women from doing harm.

Guns are not the problem. Hearts are. Our efforts need to be aimed at changing souls, not gun laws. In part, that includes prayer, as we ask God to forgive us and help us turn back to Him. But it also means doing the turning, and helping others do it, too. We need to speak truth in the face of lies, and show love even to our enemies. That does not mean being naïve, but offering forgiveness and compassion that calls for real change.

Ultimately, atrocities like those in Paris and San Bernardino are the result of despair. They happen when people see killing innocents as a way to enter paradise. They feel they have nothing else to make their lives worthwhile. What more despairing statement could be made? Christianity is about something different. It is about obtaining relationship with God through His act of boundless love, and about sharing that love with the world. It is the only thing able to compete with ideologies that glorify violence or call life meaningless. Pray that it will spread. Then go out and spread it.

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