Thoughts and prayers
Two weeks ago, I happened to be hanging out with our high school youth during their usual Sunday evening gathering. It was “Ask the Pastor” night, where teenagers were invited to ask us any question they might have related to faith, theology, the bible, etc. Among the many insightful questions asked was this one: Why should we believe in God if God doesn’t answer our prayers?
It’s a question many of us struggle with at one time or another. What’s the point of prayer, after all, if nothing changes? If we pray for healing of a family member, and that person never gets better—did God just not hear our prayer? Did God not care? What would make us want to pray for anything else if God couldn’t be bothered to answer?
There’s more nuance to the response than space allows here. But at least part of the answer might be found in the way we approach this question to begin with. If we only ever look at prayer as a sort of vending machine for getting what we want out of God, then we’ve likely missed the point entirely.
Instead, prayer has as much to do with affecting the person praying (and those around us) as it does with getting God to take some particular action. For example, we’re often quick to offer “thoughts and prayers” to others in difficult situations. But if those prayers don’t move us to any sort of action of peace, hope, or comfort, then we might’ve underestimated the real power of prayer.
When news of the most recent tragic school shooting fills the headlines, I do believe there is sincerity in the sentiments expressed when someone offers their “thoughts and prayers” to those affected.
And yet, as a person of faith, I find myself frustrated by such words. As far as I can recall, when Jesus came across a tragedy of any sort… a person in need of healing, a woman ostracized, a man with mental illness and nowhere to turn, whole communities who were considered “less than”… Jesus’ initial inclination was not only to pray.
He also took action. He put himself right in the middle of the messiness and the hurt. He got his hands dirty and his heart broken. He risked his very life for the betterment of others. He did his best to change the circumstances that caused harm to others. His actions became his prayer. It wasn’t simply asking God to change the situation of others—but Jesus also looked for the ways he could be the presence of God for all those who were hurting.
So, with the latest heartbreaking mass shooting earlier this week, I, too, will hold these grieving families & communities in my prayers. But I’m convinced that the aim of prayer ought to be to change my life as much as anyone else’s. When we offer those thoughts & prayers, it opens us up to change the very way we act or think. And, in so doing, we might begin to notice that God uses our very actions to answer the prayers we’ve spoken.
Does God respond to our prayers? Yes, I believe so. But I also wonder if God might ask us to carefully consider just what we pray for. Today, and every day, let’s start by praying that we might be the very change we wish to see in this world.