After the recent school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, “Heidi and I are keeping all the students and faculty at Santa Fe High School in our prayers this morning, along with all first responders on the scene.”
This sparked a vicious reaction on Twitter.
One person replied, “You’re not even giving them your thoughts anymore? They’ve been downgraded to just prayers now?” Another tweeted, “If you’re not going to work to improve this country, Ted, retire. We’re tired of paying you in exchange for your useless prayers.” Another tweeted a picture of two cats laying on a chair with the caption, “I NAMED MY CATS THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS BECAUSE THEY ARE USELESS.”
I think the first thing to acknowledge is that in the midst of tragedy, especially death, we all feel helpless. Nothing brings us face to face with our own mortality and powerlessness like losing someone else. The shocking suddenness of death – that someone is here today and tomorrow is no more and never will be again, is terrifying.
Many people (even some Christians) think that our prayers as Christians should somehow give us power over death and sickness. That our prayers should act like a magic wand and wave our problems away – and if they don’t then they are useless.
But prayer was never meant to be a means of controlling God – there is no formula you can employ in prayer to get your way every time. Prayer is primarily an acknowledgement of our dependency on a sovereign God. It reminds us that we are small, that our perspective is limited, that our resources are few, that our world is imperfect and that, for Christians, our hope lies in future perfection, not immediate relief.
Prayer helps us express and work through our feelings, change our outlook from the present and earthly to the eternal and heavenly, and surrender our lives and expectations into the loving, all-powerful hands of God.
It is ultimately an act of faith – faith that there is more beyond what we witness and understand. Prayer is us stepping out into the unknown, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, in whom all that faith is centred and fulfilled.
The Bible assures us, in contrast to those tweets, that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). So, if your prayers “aren’t working”, maybe that says more about you than prayer! 😉 But even the prayers of the righteous may not be answered with a “yes” or in the time frame they expect or in the manner they expect.
For instance, many pray for healing and God chooses to heal their loved ones completely by taking them to heaven, rather than with temporary healing on earth. Or, as I did, you may pray for a spouse (or a child or a job) and God only chooses to answer that prayer years later – in His perfect time because He knew the growing you needed to do first. Or God may answer your prayer with a “no” because not everything we pray for is good for us.
Prayer changes us, not God; but through prayer He allows us to participate in what He is doing in the world. That is why the Bible clearly tells us to call to God on behalf of those in need (cf. Acts 12:5; 1 Timothy 2:1).
And just think of the alternative.
If you don’t believe in any being greater than us humans, who is able to intervene in the affairs of men (even if He chooses not to sometimes) does that make suffering any easier? Isn’t your anger and “independence” cold comfort? Isn’t it a bit like cutting off your own nose to spite your face to choose to believe that we have no purpose, that life has no meaning and that there is nothing after death, just because God won’t do what you want?
That would be an incredibly bleak reality to live in.
Besides, millions can testify that God has often graciously answered their prayers, or comforted them in the midst of unanswered prayers, even if from the outside it looked like nothing changed.
The Bible is full of examples of answered prayer, that passage in James 5 gives the example of Elijah “He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (verse 17-18) and my life is full of examples of answered prayer too – healing, provision, direction, protection etc.
When I am frustrated because God seems deaf, or life seems unfair, I choose to believe with the Psalmist: “Yet I am always with You; You hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward You will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:23-26).