In recent years, politicians have been criticized for offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of gun violence. I would assume these politicians hope to mollify their constituents with these lame offerings. By such manipulative and hypocritical strategies, they hope they can get by without having to actually do something about insane gun laws which allow for the proliferation of military-style weapons designed for mass killings. These “thoughts and prayers” are useless and demeaning to the victims and their families and friends who have suffered from the senseless gun violence most civilized nations have found ways to drastically limit. When “thoughts and prayers” are accompanied by gutless pandering to the NRA and gun lobbyists, they become similar to the sick and corrupt religion the Hebrew prophets condemned over two thousand years ago.
A more helpful “thought and prayer” for those who have chosen to follow Jesus would be to come before the One he called Abba and to become silent and listen to what that God might say. The older I become, the more convinced I am that authentic prayer is more about listening than about asking, begging, blaming, and informing God about something the Almighty already knows better than any or all of us put together. After that time of listening and openness, we could sincerely ask one question: “God, what can I do to fulfill your will regarding this issue?”
Too often petitionary prayers are copouts and conveniently pass the buck to God instead of asking God for the knowledge and courage to do what we can to mend the world (or at least our part of that world). What we have written about the “thoughts and prayers” offered to victims of gun violence can also be said about the “thoughts and prayers” often found in most petitionary prayers. As we think about the effectiveness and purpose of petitionary prayers, I would suggest these observations:
1) There is nothing we can tell God that God doesn’t already know. The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is not like the gods of Greece and Rome who were often too busy pursuing their own agendas (usually selfish and abusive in nature) to be aware of the concerns and suffering of mere mortals. These gods had to be alerted by humans before they could become attentive to many of the dilemmas on earth. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus sees and knows all. This God doesn’t need human informants. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6: 7-8).
2) If God’s love is unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting (which is the primary assumption of the Christian faith), then God is already doing all God can to make a healing and redemptive difference in every case of suffering, injustice, oppression, and despair. Does it make any sense to believe that a God of such incredible and deep compassion must be convinced, urged, begged, and cajoled by the likes of us to act out of love? Would one more prayer cause God to rescue a little girl who must face repeatedly the sexual molestation by her father? Would one more prayer rearrange the world so a car carrying a whole family would swerve and miss a boulder that has fallen from some mountain? Would one more prayer have saved a single Jewish child out of one and a half million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust? What kind of God waits for our prayers to act out of love and compassion? God is already doing all God can to make this a better world.
3) Petitionary prayer does offer us an opportunity to share in the concern, grief, and pain of a God who feels from the inside out all the suffering of the world. When we suffer, it is comforting to have someone who understands and knows what we are going through. Prayer can provide a time to commiserate with God and others and share our pain (both our pain and God’s pain) and in the fellowship of that sharing, we can find solace and some degree of peace as well as the courage, wisdom, and intention needed to heal pain wherever it is possible. Although we may be uncomfortable with the notion that God may not be able to do everything we assume, mature faith must allow for that possibility. If God is pure love and could do something to stop the pain of the world but refuses to act, then what does that say about God? For many thousands of years, humans have struggled with what theologians have called “theodicy.” Theodicy asks the question of how we can justify all the suffering and evil in the world if God is all-powerful and all-loving. I have spent countless hours reading the theories and suggestions of theologians trying to answer this question. The only answer I have found that makes sense to me is this: we can have a God who is all-powerful, or we can have a God who is all-loving. We cannot have a God who is both. I refuse to accept any answer which retreats into notions that God sees a bigger picture or a greater purpose that we mere mortals can’t see. Of course, God sees more, knows more, and is working toward a more glorious goal than any of us could ever imagine. However, I can’t believe this this “more” can justify the torture and death of a single child who cries out in pain for deliverance. In such cases, not even with God, can ends justify means. I would rather trust a God who loves but at times can’t than believe in a God who can but won’t.
4) Once we realize God is doing all God can to heal and redeem the world and every situation in the world, we are relieved of the burden of trying to “pray harder” to change God’s mind. The cruel suggestion that more prayer will help puts incredible and cruel pressure on desperate people praying for their loved ones. And to be told after the death of a loved one that we should have prayed more and harder simply adds to the pain we are already going through as we cope with our loss (not to mention the insensitive arrogance of those who offer this foolishness to those who are experiencing excruciating vulnerability). Once again, we could ask what kind of God will only act after countless prayers of desperation are sent up to heaven to persuade God to do the loving thing. God is not in heaven distantly regarding human suffering. God is with us in all our vulnerability doing all that God can do. I have come to believe that the first heart to break when any human suffers and experiences loss is God’s heart. When I come to God in prayer after such a loss, I find One who understands what I am going through because She is going through the same pain. Perhaps this God experiences more pain than I do because She loves more than I do. And I find uncommon solace in the presence of Someone who truly and deeply understands.
5) In petitionary prayer we can ask God for the courage and wisdom to do what we can to join God in mending this world. This request, of course, should only be offered after we have listened quietly to the still, quiet voice. I know I wrote this earlier in this article, but now perhaps we can appreciate the impact of this possibility. Rob Bell once said that in the face of suffering, evil, and tragedy, it is not all that helpful to ask “Why?” As humans, we cannot help but ask that question, but I’m not so sure we would be any more comforted if we knew intellectually the answer to the whys of these situations. Our pain is not in our heads—it’s in our hearts. Bell suggests the better question is this: “What is God up to right here and right now, and how can I be a part of it?” What might happen if every Christian in the United States sincerely asked this question regarding the gun tragedy in our nation? Or the problem of world hunger? Or the degradation of God’s beautiful planet? Or the lethal forms of prejudice raising their ugly heads all over the globe? Or the family next door coping with unemployment or a lack of childcare?
The prophets and Jesus said that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. Isaiah and Micah proclaimed that God didn’t even want our prayers unless we were seeking and doing justice. Maybe God today doesn’t want our “thoughts and prayers.” Maybe the God of our Lord Jesus Christ is waiting for us to ask what we can do to join Her in mending the world. It was Teresa of Avila who said,
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.
This Christian mystic may have spoken more truth than she or we may ever know.