It didn’t take long after the tragedy in Las Vegas for the bloviating and hyperbole to begin. While many expressed shock and sadness for both the victims and for the city itself, sadly others took the massacre as a call to arms to press their political agendas. In the name of compassion, this latter group rejected the compassion of a country that was shocked into momentary paralysis as though they even had right to reject it in the first place.
Armed with the principle of never letting a crisis go to waste, they insist, “No! Only action is compassion.” And so, they shame, guilt, and demand action even before the blood is dry.
This has always bothered me. While the nation is still doubled-over in shock, using intense grief to promote an agenda—no matter how sincere—seems to amount to little more than emotional abuse. Any grief or pastoral counselor will tell you, decisions made in the heat of emotion almost never turn out well. In seminary, I had a professor tell his class, “Never resign on a Monday.”
Nevertheless, the demands for action ring out. In the past, that tactic hasn’t worked. So, inevitably, the outraged turned up their rhetoric to include blame, hate, and even prayer-shaming.
The cry of “prayer is not enough” became the new catchphrase. Following other mass-shootings before Las Vegas, U.S. Representative Elizabeth Etsy once said, “A moment of silence or prayer is insufficient to the task.” Senator Chris Murphy once tweeted, “Having lived through Sandy Hook, I know that thoughts and prayers are important, but they’re not enough.” Then-President Barak Obama said, “Thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel.”
Comments like these in the face of tragedy irritated me. They seemed condescending and elitist. However, in the days following the Las Vegas shooting, my perspective shifted a little. Why should I be irritated? It made complete sense that a non-believer or a worshiper of the secular culture would see prayer as nothing more than a platitude, a superstition, a symbolic ritual, or an empty gesture expressed by simpletons. They see no power behind prayer. Why would we expect them to believe anything different? They’re simply staying true to their belief system.
On the other hand, for the Christ-follower to say such a thing is more troubling. In her response to the tragedy, Christian writer Jen Hatmaker posted on her Facebook page that her “blood is boiling over and I want to run screaming into the streets. I feel like we are standing in the middle of a violent, endless nationwide crisis swirling all around us, and we keep ‘sending thoughts and prayers.’ I want to rip my hair out.”
To say prayer is not enough says a lot about that particular Christian’s view of prayer. Prayer is good, so long as it is not the holy-roller, chandelier-swinging variety, but it doesn’t truly have a power to make a difference in anything. It is something to say with children before tucking them in. It makes us feel good. It is merely an act of faith, something to hold onto. But in the face of evil, these prayer-shaming Christians seem to see little actual power in prayer.
It is not enough, they insist. Prayer is not enough. We must do something.
Because everyone knows that we humans are far better capable of solving the problem of evil than a God who created the universe and defeated death. Seek ye first the kingdom of government, and all these things shall be added unto you. Most certainly, the problem of evil can be fixed through congressional legislation, which is often brought about through manipulation, fear-mongering and compromise.
Rest easy, America.
And please ignore Paul’s words about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of humanity (1 Corinthians 1:25). Or that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). He certainly didn’t mean it that way. We must invoke action. We must do something. And we must do it in the moment when the world is rocked back on its heels.
Sarcasm aside, it is imperative that we ask ourselves exactly what is prayer. What happened in Las Vegas was the face of evil.
The very thing prayer-shamers reject is the very thing that can help.
However, before we get defensive and counter, we followers of Jesus must come to terms with prayer as well. Do we believe it? Is prayer a platitude, an exercise to say before dinner, or a symbolic act of ritual? Do we believe that in prayer we are seeking the face of Jesus against whom no evil can stand? Do we truly believe that invoking the name of Christ is an act in which the demons flee and the captives go free?
Prayer acknowledges humanity’s helplessness in the face of evil. It forces us to see our own powerlessness. Only through prayer will we ever understand the true nature of the battle.
So if politicians and media trolls want to shame Christ-followers for “merely” praying, let them. I would expect nothing different. Let them think they are doing something productive. Let them think that prayer isn’t enough. This has never intimidated God before. I would place my trust in a holy God that I cannot see over politicians who claim they have the wisdom to curb the power of evil when they don’t even have the wisdom to overcome the NRA.
Besides, prayer-shamers—both within and outside of the body of Christ—should not be our focus. God should. Legislative acts will do nothing to stem the face of evil other than make the legislators feel good about themselves. That is, until the next evil act occurs after which the whole cycle repeats.
Finally, I would like to comment about what I believe is a legitimate point that prayer-shamers make: Prayer should never be used as an excuse for apathy. There is enough truth here that should challenge us Christ-followers and even make us feel uneasy if we realize that it in fact applies to us. If we say that we are praying for Las Vegas and we do not actually pray, then we are using prayer as an excuse for inaction. That truly is apathy.
Posting a picture of the Vegas skyline with the words “praying for Vegas” is not praying. Actually praying for Las Vegas is.
If all we do is share a “praying for Vegas” post on social media without any follow-through, then we indeed have reduced prayer to simply another form of hashtag activism—a narcissistic attempt to show the world we care while accomplishing nothing. Saying we’ll pray without actually praying is nothing more of an empty exercise than that of jumping up and down with outrage, pulling our hair out, demanding “now is the time” that we do something to fix evil.
Rest assured, we will get our just rewards, if patting yourself on the back is all the reward you desire.
Meanwhile, evil prevails and the suffering continues.
I challenge us Christ-followers to pray. Really pray. Don’t pray for show. Don’t pray to make yourself feel good or uber-spiritual. Pray from the position of helplessness. But pray truly believing the power of prayer. Pray with the full knowledge that we are seeking the face of a holy God.
In the face of mockery, when others reject the power of prayer, I want to encourage you to pray anyway.