Are prayers enough?

Our nation has been ravaged by a number of tragedies lately, including three hurricanes and now the worst mass shooting in living memory. Obviously millions of people are suffering, and there has been an outpouring of support on Twitter and Facebook with people offering condolences and prayers for the victims. This has also come along with a typical response from secular skeptics who feel the need to denigrate a heartfelt gesture in the midst of tragedy. Twitter is full of condescending progressives sneering at the notion of praying for the victims and demanding that real action be taken. (For the record, the North American Mission Board and other Christian organizations have contributed millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers to disaster relief.)

But weirdly I have also seen a few similar posts from people confessing to be Christians. Purported followers of Christ stating on Facebook that prayer is not effective and demanding that the government intervene. I find it deeply disturbing to see believers turning away from belief in the power of prayer and toward the government to protect them. This is the heart of secularism and is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. Have Christians really given up on the power of praying?

Psalm 118: 8-9 (CSB) : “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humanity. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in nobles.”

Now, I am not saying that it is wrong to petition to government to help people in need. We live in a democracy, and people certainly have that right. And the government has vast resources which can be used to do a lot of good in the world. That is all true. However, it is extremely dangerous for Christians to insinuate that petitions to the government are somehow more “real” and more valuable than petitions to the Lord. Just as David numbered his fighting men, American Christians place their faith in a human institution for protection. This sin is seen repeatedly in ancient Israel leading up to their destruction at the hands of Assyria and Babylon, and now it is happening in America.

Isaiah 31:1 (CSB)

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and who depend on horses!
They trust in the abundance of chariots
and in the large number of horsemen.
They do not look to the Holy One of Israel
and they do not seek the Lord.

I suspect that part of the reason for this trend among American Christians stems from a deep desire for approval and affirmation from society. A person who tweets “Praying for the victims of this tragedy” also feels the need to clarify they did something “real” so strangers on the internet will validate their contribution. As if to say, “Oh I said a prayer. That’s just a silly thing I do, but don’t worry, I also helped in a way that actually matters.” But we are not called to be validated or even liked by society. Jesus even said “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (Luke 4:24) 

To be clear, as the book of James makes plain, real genuine faith should lead to tangible acts of kindness to those in need. Christians should definitely offer support to people who are suffering.

James 2:15-16 (CSB): If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?  In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.

Jesus also modeled this by feeding the poor and healing the sick of their physical afflictions. He did not simply preach at them, but he cared for their physical needs as well. We should absolutely do the same. But there is a question of priorities. We cannot present to the world a belief that earthly salvation is more important than spiritual salvation. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again.  But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again.” (John 4:13-14). As we see here and in other cases, Jesus cared for people physically, but in doing so he pointed them toward the Lord. This is the model for how we should respond to suffering, by directing lost and desperate people to the only Savior that can offer them real hope. When Christians act as if a prayer is a meaningless platitude in order to fit in with society, it undermines this witness. Christians are called to spread the Gospel and further the Kingdom, not to win popularity contests and ingratiate ourselves to the whims of a sinful, fallen world.

John 15:19 (CSB): “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you.”