Towards the end of last week, a young man walked into a mosque in New Zealand and opened fire. When the shooting stopped and the bodies were counted, 50 worshippers were dead, marking the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history by far. What’s even more horrifying, the shooter live-streamed the shooting on social media and published a manifesto online.
I have no idea who this shooter was nor did I bother trying to find his manifesto. I don’t know what type of gun he used or the state of New Zealand’s gun laws. I don’t know what he said about Pewdiepie, Fortnite, Donald Trump, or Candace Owens. Frankly, I don’t think any of these are particularly important. This man was a monster and he deserves to be condemned, by all of us together, period, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.
Is that the problem? Increasingly after incidents of evil, sending our “thoughts and prayers” to the victims is criticized as an ineffective response. We need action, not prayer. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the cool new Democratic Representative from the Bronx, tweeted out a good example of this, saying “what good are your thoughts and prayers when they don’t even keep the pews safe?” (In her defense, she later tweeted “thoughts and prayers was a reference to the NRA’s phrase used to deflect conservation away from policy change.” At the same time, I’m not sure how sending our thoughts and prayers became an NRA trademark, or even how the NRA, an American organization, has anything to do with a shooting in New Zealand). You can find plenty of other examples from similarly minded individuals.
I don’t know the religious faith of the individuals criticizing our thoughts and prayers, but I find this absurd. My prayers are not intended to be a defensive strategy. It’s not like I lift up my prayers, and the next time someone shows up at a place of worship intending to do harm, I expect them to be repulsed by some sort of spiritual force field. My prayers are a response, not the answer, to evil, and I’d wager most of my fellows would agree with me.
But as tragedy continues to strike unabated by our prayers, it might be nice to ask why we pray. If we pray, and nothing seems to happen, why keep praying? At what point does prayer become insanity, repeating the same thing and expecting different results?
But what if prayer is more than a matter of getting God to act a certain way, and more a discipline, designed to develop us into the people of God?
Every night before I go to bed I pray for some of the people I met almost two years ago when I went to Kenya. But the fact of the matter is, I will probably never see these people again, and I have no way of knowing how most of them are doing. This means I will never know if my prayers have been answered. And yet I keep praying. Why?
Because prayer is about more than what I am actually praying for. Yes, I want God to provide these kids with food, shelter, safety, an education, and so on. But it is also about reminding myself that these people exist, that they are precious to God, and therefore, they ought to be precious to me too. It is a way of reminding myself of the man I ought to be in order that I might grow into that man.
When I did ski racing, I would pray as I stood in the starting box, partially out of nerves and partially out of habit. Did this prayer grant me skiing abilities I didn’t possess two minutes before? Hardly. But once again, this prayer was about more than my request. It was about my mindset. It was about my reminding myself that all good things, including my abilities, come from God and are able to be enjoyed thanks to his goodness.
Was this prayer about me getting to the bottom of the hill quickly and safely? In a way, but it was more about reminding me of my place in God’s universe, helping me to remain humble in whatever meager success I enjoyed.
I am not discounting the power of prayer to affect change. I do believe God listens to prayer, and he can move mountains in response to the prayers of his people. I am not some sort of religious determinist, who believes God has one unchangeable plan and that we are merely pawns on his chessboard. Our choices matter and our prayers matter.
Also, the takeaway from this piece is not “Dallas you’re so holy”. I merely used a couple of personal examples to show that prayer is much more than a vehicle for change. We pray even when we have little hope of change, no way of knowing about change, or when change isn’t really our goal. In these cases prayer is a discipline, designed to align ourselves with the character of God and our place in his universe. Prayer is a cure, rescuing us from the sins of indifference, jadedness, and pride.
I don’t know the victims of this shooting. They were citizens of a different nation, worshipping a different God, and from a culture very different from my own. It’s challenging to imagine people I have less in common with, and it would be easy for me to numbly shrug my shoulders at this news and move on.
My prayers are the answer to that. And if by our prayers, the people of God develop the empathy to fight evil in all its forms, so that we are ready the next time evil strikes, I’d say our prayers do make a great deal of difference.