First, I want to say, my heart is deeply saddened by not only the horrific events in Las Vegas recently, but also the overall trend over the last 18 years or so (since the massacre at Columbine High School) to more and more…and seemingly worse and worse mass shootings in this nation. It truly breaks my heart to see the United States of America, that “shining city on a hill” and “beacon of hope and freedom” to so many, deteriorate to the point where human life has become so devalued, as a society, that it has now become a political bargaining chip or something that can be “snuffed out” to make an exclamation point to any statement some radical or nut job wants to make. This is especially painful when we realize that our nation was founded on the principle of making “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the core values of our society. Oh, how far we have fallen. And it does not seem, right now, that there is any light at the end of the tunnel….does it?
But, I did not want to make this post another commentary on the tragedy in Vegas. I wanted to try to look beyond it…hopefully to something more positive. So let me try.
There was one thing that stuck out to me in all the opinions and talking points that erupted, as they always do, after such a tragedy. It seemed that many, especially the late night talk show hosts, wanted to sarcastically (almost mockingly) make light of the fact that so many, including President Trump, were offering their “prayers and thoughts” for the victims, the families and others who were impacted so powerfully and permanently by these senseless shootings. It was almost like they were suggesting that when someone offers “thoughts and prayers,” they seem willing to offer empty words that change nothing, but were unwilling to help in any real way. I know their concern and outrage is real, as it was with all of us, but I couldn’t help but notice the common theme of minimizing the power of real and reverent prayer to God. Let’s take a look at a few of their comments.
“So, with all due respect: Your thoughts and your prayers are insufficient (Mr. President)…and lately, it feels like someone opened a window into hell.” Jimmy Kimmel (“Jimmy Kimmel Live”)
“If it’s going to be ‘thoughts and prayers’ from here on out,” Meyers said, “the least you can do is be honest.” Seth Meyers (“Late Night With Seth Meyers”)
“To the people of Las Vegas, I can’t give you thoughts and prayers. I can only say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry we live in a world where people will put a gun before your lives,” Trevor Noah (“The Daily Show”)
“The sounds of those automatic weapons last night are grotesquely out of place in a civilized society. It makes no sense to me as a reasonable human being and a father,” he continued. “Something needs to change.” Conan O’Brien (“Conan”)
I know, primarily, these statements were pointed towards the President and Congress for doing nothing, in their opinion, to stop gun violence in our country. But it hit a nerve with me regarding something I have thought about over the last few months, even pointing a probing finger towards myself. I believe in the power of prayer, very much so, yet when I hear of someone I know passing away or enduring hardship, how many times have I flippantly said, “Prayers and thoughts for you and the family.” Sure, I am truly concerned for them, but I quickly offer these words almost as if to say, “There, I have done my part.” Sometimes, I have even thought back about it afterwards and realized….”Oh, my goodness, I told them I would pray for them and I never did.” Of course, it wasn’t intentional, but I felt like I made a promise and didn’t keep it. That is just not acceptable, if you ask me, and I have certainly been guilty of that. I believe true prayer helps and, in those situation, real prayers are needed and appreciated, no doubt.
But, if that is the kind of prayer those TV personalities were talking about, the kind of prayer that is not prayer at all, but more like unkept promises to pray or just nice-sounding words of consolation, then I agree with them. That type of prayer is insufficient…or maybe it would be better to say…nonexistent. It solves nothing.
But maybe we should talk a little bit about what prayer really is. Of course, different faiths approach prayer differently, but I want to talk about the kind of prayer that it talks about in the Bible. Conversational prayer…talking to God honestly and sincerely, from your heart. Let’s take a look at some quotes from Scripture to help clarify what biblical prayer looks like.
“Hear me as I pray, O Lord. Be merciful and answer me! My heart has heard you say, ‘Come and talk with me.’ And my heart responds, ‘Lord, I am coming.’” [Psalm 27:7-8 NLT]
This psalm was written by King David (a musician and songwriter, too, works for me). He describes the “give and take” of prayer beautifully. First David asks God to hear him when he prays. God answers (not some underling or angel)…”Come and talk me.” David responds from his heart, “Lord, I am coming.” It appears God Almighty, then, has an “open door policy” and even more importantly, “open ears” towards His children. He implores us to “come and talk.”
“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 4:5-7 ESV]
This was the Apostle Paul, again, telling us to “be anxious for nothing, but…let your requests be made known to God.” When we are concerned or sad…or even anxious about something, we are taught to tell God what we are feeling, to be honest and make our requests known to Him. He is a “Good, Good Father” (as the song says) and He wants us to come to Him and share our hearts. Now, just like the title of the 60s TV show “Father Knows Best” suggests, He may not always give us what we want because our ways are not always His ways. But He will always give us what we need at the appropriate time. That much I know from experience.
Jesus actually talked quite a bit about prayer in His famous Sermon On The Mount:
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father…do not heap up empty phrases (as some do) for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” [Matthew 6:6-8 ESV]
When we talk about this stuff, we should always remember that “God looks at the heart.” Jesus was fully aware of this, too, which is why He basically said, “It is not what comes out of your mouth that matters, but what’s in your heart. And God already knows what is in your heart before you say it.” So, sprucing it up with a bunch of pretty-sounding words and religiosity might tickle peoples’ ears, but it will not increase the likelihood of God answering those prayers. He has already decided how to respond to your requests. What God is after is our participation. When we talk to Him and make our requests know, we become part of the solution. We are agreeing with Him and inviting Him to be involved. He wants to be, but He is not inclined to show up without an invitation. Jesus went on, in the next chapter, to clarify a little further:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? If you then, who are evil (sinners) know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” [Matthew 7:7-9, 11 ESV]
Again, it seems what God wants is our partnership, our participation. He wants to give good things and do good things for His children, but do we truly want Him to? Or would we rather take matters into our own hands and do things our way? It is an important question. I have heard some people say, “I’m just afraid if I turn this over to God in prayer, I might not like the answer.” Good point. Praying means you want God to have His way in the matter, trusting His way is best. Do you?
If so…pray away. Pray with confidence that He is listening, because He is and His answer is already on the way. But, remember, God is not Amazon Prime. He does not guarantee two-day delivery. Some patience and persistence may be required, Ok?
So, back to the original question…is prayer insufficient, or powerless, or maybe just nice, but empty words meant to make someone feel good…a thoughtful gesture, but not much more than that? I would point to the Apostle James, the half-brother of Jesus, and see what he had to say on the subject.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” [James 5:16 NASB]
It makes me think that if a person is sincere and honest and doing their best to seek God with their whole heart (none of us are perfect, obviously, and we all fall short at times), I believe He will not only hear those prayers, but answer them according to His will.
I would agree, to a point, with those talk show hosts about one thing. God’s Word is clear that what the Lord desires from us is not just our prayers, but our participation in spreading God’s love and grace to others, as well. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Faith without works is dead,” which means that having faith or praying for others is not an excuse to stand back and not get involved in God’s work. So yeah, if we are only willing to pray, but not willing to be an active part of trying to solve the problem or meet the need, your prayers will likely not accomplish much, as James suggested.
But we should never underestimate the power of prayer…real prayer, that is.
However, it is not up to me (or anyone else) to decide if your prayers are sincere or honest. That is between you and God. Only He knows what is in your heart. I sure don’t.
But this much I do believe, God wants His children to talk to Him, as you might talk to your earthly father, mother or a friend. And He wants to talk with us.
I consider that a great honor, one that I am thrilled to take part in every chance I get.
I would hope, and yes, pray that you would consider it an honor and privilege, as well, because I believe that once a person truly encounters God’s mercy and His grace, they would have no doubt about the power of prayer. They would have experienced it, first hand, in their own lives.
And trust me, these days, this world and our nation needs a lot of prayer.
We could use your help.
Author of the new book, “The Red Letter Parables” (coming soon)