This one goes out to everyone who rolls their eyes and/or fills with rage when Christians or casual theists respond to tragedy with “Prayers!”
“Prayers!” has become so commonplace and so trite that it applies as readily to a dead goldfish as a mass shooting. At best, it provides the comfort of knowing someone out there has just enough emotional energy to type eight characters in response to your unimaginable pain. At worst, it evokes the crushing isolation of knowing that someone out there knows your pain and has decided to loft a prayer skyward in lieu of, say, picking up the phone, dropping by with a meal, scheduling a visit, sending flowers, making a financial gift, writing a personal message, asking how they can come alongside you, acknowledging the tragic nature of the situation, or even just saying, “I’m sorry. This sucks. I love you.”
If your go-to response to tragedy is “Prayers!” then you have engaged in a pat-on-the-back forfeiture of actual empathy.
Yes – I do believe in the power of prayer to heal, protect, and provide peace. And when I catch wind of tragedy, it’s the first thing I do. It’s just that prayer isn’t always a loving response.
So to back up a tic, why do we pray? Christians pray because God is in essence and nature a relational being. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit model the perfect relationship — a relationship of humility, love, trust, and constant communion. Being created in the image of God, we are in nature and essence relational beings. Thus, we are inborn with a desire to commune with God — and he with us — because to do so is to mirror the perfect unity of the Trinity. And in any healthy relationship, each party strives for the good of the other.
Simply put, God wants to hear from us. He wants to know the longings of our hearts so that he can work for our good. Yes, He could just read our minds (omniscience and all) but that would not be relational. When we bring our prayers to God, we do so in recognition of His unceasing love for us. We ask in expectation and rest in the peace that He has prepared the best response because of His great love.
But in some cases, praying is like getting homework and asking your dad to complete it. In Exodus 14, we see an example of this: Moses and the Israelites (good guys) are fleeing bondage in Egypt when Pharaoh (bad guy) has second thoughts and begins to pursue the refugees. Distressed, Moses turns to God in prayer. Scripture tells us, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” In other words, God tells Moses: ACT!
God has equipped us with the capacity to ACT. If life has ever schooled you in tragedy, then you know how to do your homework. So before you respond, “Prayers!” I challenge you to do something with the skills, resources, and time God has already given you. Give living testimony to God’s love through an engaged and sacrificial response to the situation. If the person is a fellow Christ follower, at the very least pick up the phone and put voice to your supplications.
Lastly, if you know someone is atheist or irreligious and your response to their tragedy is “Prayers!” then you are in effect saying, “I am doing nothing!” It’s disrespectful. You can pray privately. If your concern for that person is real, do something personally and sincerely with deference to their needs.
And for everyone’s sanity, cool it on the prayer emojis.