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Explaining prayer to the sneering mockers who are feeling their oats these days
Secular culture is getting prayer totally wrong. To the extent any want to really understand what it is and why we do it, here's a primer.
I really like Michael McKean as a performer, but maybe he's better when someone else is writing the lines for him. Then again, that pretty well is what's happening. The secular left has decided to mock and scoff at everyone who offers prayers during a time of tragedy, evil or catastrophe - so McKean was really just following the script when he did this:
They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.— Michael McKean (@MJMcKean) November 5, 2017
You're familiar by now with the notion the left is trying to push: Uncaring Republicans publicly declare themselves prayerful because that's the cheap and easy thing to say, even as they refuse to do anything to solve the problem. This narrative has exploded on the left, and we see it pushed most aggressively in the aftermath of every mass shooting. That's because, with respect to this issue, the only thing that qualifies as "do something" to the left is to ban guns, and since Republicans know that's a bad idea and won't do it, the left characterizes their position as "offer phony thoughts and prayers while doing nothing."
It used to be that secular leftists at least pretended to respect the idea of prayer even if they didn't practice it or agree with it. That no longer holds. Now they openly mock it, as McKean does in the tweet above. And since the media take their cue from the cultural left, reporters have been going around asking people, "Does prayer work?" and "Is prayer enough?"
This being the case, I'd say those of us who have some understanding of the theological underpinnings of prayer need to make some things clear about what prayer is, why you do it and where it fits in the larger picture.
In Philippians 4:6, Paul tells us: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul tells us: "Pray without ceasing."
There are many other passages on prayer, but I want to focus on these two. When Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, he doesn't mean to bow your head and get down on your knees and never get up. You've got to live. You've got things to do. What he means, though, is that your prayerful interaction with God should never really come to an end. If you're intimately close to Him then He should never be far from your mind, or from your heart, and you should always be listening to Him in spirit and bringing things before Him. Whether you're in your "prayer closet" if that's what you're into, or standing in line at the coffee shop, you should always have a prayerful spirit.
And Paul's directive from Philippians 4 tells us a great deal about how we should pray, and how we should think. God doesn't want us to fret. (Psalm 37 is all about that.) God wants us to go forth confidently in our lives, and know that He has already won the battle between good and evil. But obviously there will be things in life that concern or grieve us. Sometimes we will be tempted to worry, because that can be in our nature. But God says not to worry (Matthew 6:25-34), so He tells us that when something troubles us, we're to take it to Him.
If I'm reading news about a mass shooting and I'm troubled about what happened, and I'm concerned about the people affected by it, God doesn't want me to sit around worrying about them. He wants me to pray for them. In other words, take the concern to Him. He's got it.
Now this is where the secularist wants to treat God like he's a politician or the coach of a team. They'll demand to know what He's going to do. Is He going to solve the problem? How will He do it? When can we expect this solution? Will it be released to the public prior to implementation? Will the solution be modified if the New York Times editorializes against it?
God doesn't operate that way. God is many many many steps ahead of you, me and everyone else. God can set events in motion far from the event you're focused on, and use those events to bend many other events to His will. Or He may not do that because He wants to give people over to their folly for other reasons that glorify Him.
This is hard for the secularist to understand because we like to think our agenda is equal to God's. It's not. We like to think that God will not only solve problems but that He will do it in the same way we would do it, only quicker and easier. God isn't like us and He doesn't do things the way we would do them - first because He's not limited like we are and second because He understands things we don't understand about why things happened and what needs to happen next.
What we do know, however, is that God knows the needs of everyone and He is capable of meeting those needs. We also know that it pleases God to hear from His people about what's on our hearts, so when someone prays for you that is pleasing to God and He will absolutely answer the prayer - although we're not in a position to demand what the answer will be. It doesn't work that way when He is sovereign and you are not.
So what is the answer to the question, "Is prayer enough?" The answer is that the question doesn't make sense, because its premise is wrong. The premise of the question is that people who pray about mass shootings want to pray only but refuse to do anything else. People who pray and listen to God - whether that means reading His word or discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit, and it should be both - are directed to take action all the time. Some are led to tend to the wounded and comfort the grieving. Some are led to serve as police or security. Some are led to become involved in policymaking. And some are not led to personally get involved in this issue because God has other plans for them, but they should still pray about it because it's in their hearts to do so.
Now let's consider this sneering tweet from Stephen King:
Enough with the prayin'. Time to start legislatin'.— Stephen King (@StephenKing) November 5, 2017
I have no idea what King might believe concerning God, if anything, but he clearly doesn't understand what God says about prayer because there's no such thing as having prayed enough. What King implies is that prayer is being used as a flimsy substitute for making new laws, and gosh, I wonder what kinds of laws he wants.
Obviously the message is essentially this: Prayer won't solve the problem. Gun control will. Stop praying and pass gun control.
The person who understands why we pray knows that it's never a choice between prayer and action. Prayer should guide our action. Prayer keeps us close to the heart of God and helps us to ensure that the actions we do take align with His will.
So if that's the case, you might ask, then why don't these praying legislators pass gun control while they're praying?
The answer is simply that they don't think it's the right thing to do, nor do I. I've offered my own policy prescription for this problem. Some like it, some don't. But I've also made it clear that we're not having these mass shootings because of guns or mental health or anything like that. We're having them because evil is flourishing in a culture that is pushing God to the side.
The solution to that is prayer, and lots of it - repentant prayer in which people surrender their hearts to Jesus Christ and make Him pre-eminent in their lives.
So: Does prayer work?
That, too, is a question based on a wrong premise. The purpose of prayer is not to get stuff or specific outcomes, although sometimes we do. The purpose of prayer is to offer our hearts to God and to fully rely on Him, and to open our hearts to hear what He has to say to us. Prayer can't fail because God can't fail.
Maybe now some of you will no longer fail to understand what prayer is and why we do it. And maybe some of you will stop mocking and sneering at those who do it.
Dan's new novel, BACKSTOP, is a story of spiritual warfare and baseball. Download it from Amazon here!