Updated: Aug 17, 2019
The shootings in El Paso and Dayton have once again brought the issue of gun violence to the forefront of public consciousness in our country. As usual, there is a common refrain of sending thoughts and prayers to those who have been impacted by these crimes. Indeed, whenever there is a mass shooting of any kind, my church places candles on our communion table to commemorate the dead and we call them by name during the prayers.
This ritual raises an important question: do thoughts and prayers actually do anything of value for the victims or their families? Perhaps more to the point, do thoughts and prayers do anything at all even when there is not a mass shooting? This is a question that is often avoided by religious leaders because prayers are their bread and butter. Prayers are the currency of religion and, like money to a government, religious leaders don’t like to devalue their currency. That said, I want to have a frank discussion about what I believe prayers do and, more importantly, what they don’t do.
There’s a story in the biblical book of Genesis that I have always found to be rather unusual. Let me set the scene for you. God has decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. After learning of God’s plan to destroy these cities, Abraham becomes worried that his nephew, a man by the name of Lot who lives in Sodom, will be destroyed along with everyone else.
Abraham begins to question God’s plan, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gn. 18:23-25)
Personally, I find this exchange to be rather humorous because it sounds like a teenager trying to appease an upset parent. One would think the authors would portray God as being set in the decision to destroy these cities, but God exhibits some degree of flexibility and agrees to Abraham’s request saying, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” (Gn. 18:26)
Interestingly, after being given a little bit of leeway, Abraham starts revising his numbers downward because he’s concerned that he set the number of righteous people needed to save Sodom and Gomorrah too high. So Abraham comes back to God, “Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And God says, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” (Gn. 18:28) Abraham doesn’t stop there. He continues to push his luck. He keeps coming back to the table with another request and every time he wants a new, lower number. Abraham does this until he has bargained his way down to ten. Ten righteous people is all that’s needed to save these cities.
Regardless of whether or not this scene from Genesis has any historical validity (which in my mind it doesn’t), this negotiation between God and Abraham raises some interesting questions, such as: can you actually bargain with God? Can you say to God, “If you do this, then I’ll do that?” Can your prayers cause God to intervene in the world? If a situation is headed in a particular direction with a particular outcome (say someone is in the midst of the shootings that took place in El Paso and Dayton), can your prayers cause God to change the trajectory of that situation? Can you pray in that moment not to get shot and God will prevent you from getting shot?
These are really important questions because how you answer them impacts how we think of the purpose and function of prayer. Most Christians believe that God can intervene to change the outcome of our world. This is a wonderful idea in theory. When things aren’t going your way, your prayers can cause God or an angel to nudge you in a more positive direction. Unfortunately, if this is true, we immediately run into problems.
For example, if God saved you from being shot, if an angel nudged you out of the way of that bullet, then why didn’t God save the others? Why didn’t they get a nudge as well? Or, if God really wanted to save a lot of people, why didn’t God intervene to stop the shooters from committing these atrocities in the first place? Why couldn’t God enter into their heads and ultimately change their minds so that none of this ever happened?
If God is truly in control of everything, as Christians so often claim, then it would seem to me that God could anticipate the end game of their actions and head it off before it ever came to fruition. But that didn’t happen. Therefore, if we are going to continue to subscribe to God being in control and being able to change the course of our lives, then Christians have to resolve these concerns.
Let’s consider some of the most common responses from pastors. One is that we didn’t pray hard enough or we didn’t have enough faith. There is a verse in the New Testament where Jesus says that God will answer the prayers of the faithful: “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Mt. 21:22) In essence, what this verse is saying is that if you pray with true faith then God will heed your prayer and intervene. So the reason why some people got shot is because they didn’t ask God to save them with enough faith. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like B.S. to me.
Another common answer is to relieve God of responsibility by saying that Satan was victorious in this particular circumstance. For instance, some Christians would say that, because Satan has a strong grip on the gunmen, God was unable to change the outcome of the situation for the better. Of course, this explanation assumes two things: 1) that Satan is real and 2) that the gunmen are not responsible for their own actions.
What many of these Christians fail to recognize is how the existence of a being like Satan reflects on God. If God is really all-powerful and all-good, then what does it say about God that God allows a being like Satan to “win” in situations like these? If God is able to change the outcome of our world as Christians claim, then it seems ridiculous and callous on God’s part to allow Satan to ruin so many good lives.
However, in my experience, the most common response for why a prayer was or was not answered has to do with God’s plan. God didn’t save those people because it wasn’t part of God’s plan. I cannot tell you how often I have heard pastors and other Christians say, “Though we may not understand it, God has a plan.” Really? God has a plan? So it was God’s plan for a two gunmen to mow down dozens of innocent people on the same day? That’s a horrible plan if you ask me. I mean, can’t God, the creator of the universe, do a little better than that?
But I can already hear some Christians saying to me, “Alex, God gave humans free will, so God can’t control everything that goes on in world!” To which I would respond: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have God intervening in the world and responding to your prayers and then doing nothing when a mass murder is about to take place. Either God intervenes or God doesn’t. There is no middle ground. For me, I believe that our prayers have no effect on God whatsoever.
Most Christians assume that prayer is a way to get God’s attention. If we take this to its logical end, then, when God hears a prayer, God is thinking, “Thanks so much for saying that prayer because I was totally not paying any attention. If you hadn’t taken the time to let me know about this, then I would have definitely missed it and that person would have died. Alright, let’s see what I can do…”
The idea that God is like an air traffic controller, sitting in heaven making decisions about who’s going to crash and who’s going to land, is the exact opposite of God’s role in our lives. The notion that our prayers have any impact on God whatsoever is very egotistical. To think that our words have the ability to influence and change God, the being that is responsible for the creation of the entire universe, is misguided. We don’t possess that kind of power. Believe me, I wish we did.
When I’m watching somebody die in the hospital, I cannot tell you how badly I want to be able to say some special combination of words that will cause God to change the outcome of that situation. There are times when I wish that God was like a celestial Santa Claus who fulfilled our requests because we’ve been good people. But that’s not how God works and that’s not how prayer works. Instead, the purpose of prayer is to change us and, by consequence, the people around us.
Let’s take a moment and look at prayer for what it actually does in the world. When I pray, I often feel a closer connection to God. My prayers haven’t changed God, they’ve changed me. That prayer has opened my heart and allowed me to be more conscious of and connected to the love that God has for me. Does feeling God’s love in my heart more closely have an effect on the world? Of course it does. Through my connection with God I’m kinder to other people; I’m looking for more opportunities to serve my fellow human beings and, as a result, I’m spreading God’s spirit of redemption throughout the world.
And here is where our prayers can make a difference. Let’s say that I’ve been praying and I come across someone who’s struggling. I can tell this person feels dejected and alone. If I’m in touch with God’s love, then maybe that will inspire me to intervene. Perhaps through talking to this person, I will discover that he had been thinking about hurting himself and others. Through that act of loving intervention, I work to find him some help so he feels more stable. In that stability, he eventually abandons his plan to hurt other people. That’s how prayers work in the world. That’s how prayers make a difference.
We can pray all we want for gun violence to stop, but God isn’t going to magically come down from the sky and snatch up all the people who are planning atrocities. If we want gun violence to cease, then we are one’s who are going to make that happen. So my advice to you is to start praying now. Pray that you would be God’s intervention in the world to stop gun violence. Pray that you might have the opportunity to show kindness to someone who is struggling because you might be the reason why they put down the gun and choose a completely different path.