In the wake of the 355th mass shooting—of this year—many politicians sent out condolences in the form of prayers to the people of San Bernadino, CA. Things like, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this tragedy,” and “Praying for peace and safety for our first responders today,” were in high number. And there’s nothing wrong with either of these statements: my thoughts and prayers were also focused on those affected by the tragedy, and I too was concerned for the first responders who were putting themselves in danger. These are great sentiments for sure.
And yet, prayers like these have caused quite the outrage in recent months. After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College on October 1 of this year (at that point, we had only had 294 mass shootings in 274 days), President Obama emphatically remarked, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage being repeated somewhere else in America.” Today, the New York Daily News responded in a similar way with the headline, “God Isn’t Fixing This,” calling a number of politicians “cowards” for their “meaningless platitudes.” In both cases, as with the many people who have suffered at the hands of gun violence, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with the prayer. We cannot depend on God to fix all of our problems, many say. We need to do something ourselves.
What do we as Christians make of this?
In each of these cases—the politicians who Tweeted their condolences, President Obama calling for more than prayer, and the NY Daily News calling for anything but prayer—”prayer” is understood in a rather narrow, private, and disconnected sense. When we pray, it seems to all of them, we present desires or wishes to something or someone outside of ourselves in hopes that they will be granted. In this sense, prayer is a way of expressing what it is most important to an individual, and for those who “believe in the power of prayer,” it offers a sense of comfort that everything will ultimately be alright; God listens to and answers our prayers, we say and believe, so this many people praying must work out in the long run, right?
But I’m not convinced that this is the definition of prayer that we want to rest on. While, yes, intercessory prayer is definitely a component of a full prayer life, by itself, understood as it has been presented, it is a tragically incomplete experience.
Think of it this way. If God is eternal, perfect, and unchanging, how is it that we can change God’s mind about something so as to cause God to intervene? (We can’t!) There is no possible desire or request that we could ever express that God doesn’t already know, hasn’t been thinking about for all eternity, and is currently intervening to the extent God sees fit (how and why God intervenes is a topic for another post…) We may ask for something, but God already knows what’s best for us and will give us all that we need when we need it. In other words, our prayers do not change God’s mind or control God’s actions.
For some, it may sound like I’m saying that we should abandon all intercessory prayer. “If God doesn’t change, why even ask for help? God’s going to do what God’s going to do with or without my prayer.” In a way, yes, this is true: God cannot be “moved” by anything outside of Godself. But that doesn’t mean I’m saying we shouldn’t seek God’s intercession… it means that we should understand prayer in a deeper way. Instead of thinking about prayer as a way for us to change God, why not see it as a opportunity for God to change us?
You see, prayer is more than a one-way communication of “pleases” and “thank-yous” in which we speak and God chooses to answer or not; it is a multi-direction, active experience of God in which we not only communicate our desires or emotions to God, God communicates with us in such a way to transform, convert, and inspire the very desires and emotions we share. Prayer is not a time in which God listens patiently and conforms to our desires (ha!), it is the time when we open ourselves up enough to listen patiently to God and conform ourselves to God‘s desires. In other words, prayer is an experience that makes us more like God, not God more like us.
If this is our understanding of prayer—getting back to politicians dealing with our tragic situation of repeated gun violence—true prayer is not an expression of our sentiments or a way to express our condolences, it is an act that gives us the clarity and motivation to act more like God in the world. True prayer is transformative. It does not end when we say “Amen” and go about the rest of our day. That’s when the prayer truly begins.
And so, while I find president Obama’s speech lacking in nuance and the Daily News’ article misunderstanding the role that prayer can play, their frustrations are rightly directed: “prayer” that does not result in a new way of thinking or acting, that does not seek to reconcile the situation or prevent new tragedies from occurring, is far from the experience that it can and should be. Prayers by politicians that are accompanied by inaction, or worse, action that deliberately works against the prevention of more tragedies, are not enough.
After 355 mass shootings in less than a year and thousands of more fatalities as a result of gun violence, it’s clear that something needs to change. Some have suggested that, “Our prayers are not enough.” And I agree. But the problem is not that we pray. It’s that we don’t let our prayer transform us into the people of action and justice we need to be. Prayer that only asks God to fix our problems, without allowing God to transform us in the process, is not enough.