We have a curious relationship with prayer. Historically we have acknowledged God in some fashion and thus our need to communicate with him. I’m sure the hallowed saints of the past were quite serious about the effectiveness of prayer, but what about us common folk? Do we really take it that seriously?
In recent years, amongst the exhaustion of repeated acts of public and private violence, the term “thoughts and prayers” has been frequently used or overused or abused, depending on your viewpoint. Even within the Christian community, there is a palpable weariness and impatience with prayer in the face of growing chaos. Prayer doesn’t seem to be generating any results. More than once have I heard some version of, “it’s time to stop praying and start acting.” I wholeheartedly agree that there needs to be action. The real question is, what does “action” look like? What can we do that produces the results we’re looking for?
Our natural inclination is to intervene. We want to step into a situation and fix it, or at least push it in the right direction, and sometimes a solution is easily diagnosed. However, those aren’t the ones that bring us to this point, but rather the bigger, tougher issues that don’t have clear answers. Yet we volunteer our services anyway, knowing deep down we can’t really fix it. Why do we do this? I believe it’s less about fixing the problem and more about fixing ourselves. We know we’re inadequate and powerless to affect a real and lasting change, yet trying still feels better than sitting. “I have to do something” is the verbalized form of this feeling. So we intervene, whether or not it’s effective or even asked for, because purging our conscience, being able to live with ourselves, is paramount.
It would seem our action has been just as ineffective as we suppose prayer to be. So perhaps there’s a deeper change that needs to happen, one to which we don’t have direct access with our words or hands. Perhaps we need to realize that we are just as flawed as the flawed system in which we exist, and that our best efforts will always and ultimately fall short. That kind of change can only come from a source outside of us.
Over the last few months our small group has been walking through the book “Where Your Treasure Is” by the late Eugene Peterson, which is essentially an exercise in praying through the Psalms. The most frequent and foundational message that Peterson proclaims is that “prayer is action”. His thesis may be hard to swallow, but it couldn’t be more true. We want to do, to act, and praying, at least as we’ve been taught, is anything but action. However, when we realize that true action must be taken in a realm beyond what we see or feel, then pleading with the God who can act in that realm is not our best option or last resort, but our only hope.