Why “Praying for You” Isn’t a Pointless Cliche

Photo credit: Danny Rivero/Fusion

Photo credit: Danny Rivero/Fusion

The recent horrific shooting in Orlando once again forces us to grapple with what we can and should do in the face of tragedy. And for many Christians, prayer is a reflexive response.

Increasingly, however, the idea of praying for those involved in a tragedy is dismissed by those critical of Christianity and religion. Offering someone your prayers is useless, they say, a cliché so threadbare that we’d all be much better off if it never again polluted conversations and social media. What we need is action, not words.

My first inclination is to fire off a strong rebuttal. But I’ve come to realize that my own perspective on prayer isn’t always that different. Yes, I often pray for the people involved when I hear of terrible events like Orlando, just like I routinely pray for those close to me who are dealing with various kinds of suffering and difficulty. But I often feel like it’s a kind of formality, like nothing much will come of it. And if I really wanted to help, I’d need to take concrete action. I’d need to do something something genuinely useful.

Don’t misunderstand. There are many ways in which active hands and feet are needed to minister grace in the midst of hardship. For example, local Chick-Fil-A restaurants worked this past Sunday—when they’re normally closed—to provide food for those standing in line to give blood for the Orlando victims. May the tribe of such people do nothing but increase, and may we all learn from their example.

But there’s also a real problem with my “praying is a pittance” mentality. And to see what it is, we have to remember a few relevant facts:

  • God is real, and when we pray, he actually hears. Nothing escapes his attention. He is never surprised, never overwhelmed.
  • He is gracious and compassionate. So much so that he sent his Son to live and die and rise again to save sinners.
  • He is wisdom is incalculable. There is nothing in creation that perplexes God. Nothing that he doesn’t understand with absolute clarity and comprehensiveness.
  • His power dwarfs our imagination. He flung the stars into existence. He holds the oceans of the world in his hand. He upholds every single particle in existence by the word of his power.

God’s people cried out to him in their slavery and he split a sea in half. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before God and water sprung from a rock. Joshua called on God and the sun stopped. Elijah’s prayers brought first a drought and then life-giving rain. The early church prayed earnestly for a jailed Peter and his chains fell off. Jesus prayed and fed thousands from single meal, raised a dead man to life, and made sure his people would one day see the fullness of his glory.

So when we pray, it turns out we are actually seeking help from the one person in the universe who is the best qualified and most capable of giving it…and it isn’t close. In many ways we’re right to feel powerless. We can understand and accomplish so very little on our own. But God is never stumped and never helpless. He can bring about true justice. He can kindle hope. He can comfort the broken and weary in ways we can’t comprehend. And he’s the one that can actually change hearts that are determined to do evil. He can do all these things, and a thousand more besides. And he does them every day.

By all means, then, let’s continue to give, to serve, to comfort, and to mobilize in other ways that mitigate tragedy. We shouldn’t stand idle by the blaze while holding a bucket of water. But let’s also pray. When all is said and done, that might very well be the best action we can take.

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