So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17
In the wake of the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history in Las Vegas on October 1, members of Congress who are outspoken in their support for the 2nd Amendment were roundly criticized for offering their “thoughts and prayers” rather than their actions and policies to curb gun access. I saw many messages of outrage and disgust. One friend wrote on Facebook, “PLEASE - If I'm ever mowed down by a weapon of mass destruction unnecessarily allowed to be placed in the hands of a civilian - politicize it. As much as possible. But, by all means, pray for me, too.” Local op-ed writer Jarvis DeBerry penned an article entitled, “Your thoughts and prayers haven’t stopped mass shootings” in which he shared that thoughts and prayers alone aren’t meaningful.
These criticisms echo my own anger that elected officials are offering their prayers when they have the power to change our gun laws to prevent mass shootings like other countries have done successfully.
As a praying person, this conversation about thoughts and prayers has left me wondering if prayer for otherse is meaningless. What is the proper place of prayer in response to suffering?
In his article, DeBerry invokes the second chapter of a letter written by Jesus’ brother James for an answer. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
If James were writing to us today, I think he’d say that telling a suffering person that we’re praying for them rather than taking actions to ease or prevent their suffering when it’s within our power is a cop out.
I, too, am guilty of offering a pat “I’ll pray for you” to people who have shared their struggles with me. I give myself points for saying a nice thing and go about my day, rather than engaging in the harder work of trying to support another human being. And sometimes I do actually remember the person in my prayers. But if our prayers for others aren’t also accompanied by some action, then they are mostly meaningless.
In his letter James is challenging his audience to follow Jesus’ amazing, beautiful, and difficult example. Jesus’ prayer time is well-documented. When Jesus was tired or overwhelmed or sad he turned to prayer. However, prayer was not Jesus’ most memorable response to suffering. When throngs of hurting people came to him, Jesus made the blind to see, made the lepers clean, cast out demons, transformed hearts, healed hemorrhages, and even raised the dead back to life. In short, when people needed help, Jesus didn’t just pray. He acted.
Like Jesus, we are called to respond to the suffering in our world with our prayers and with our actions.
The true power of prayer, I believe, is its power to spur us to action.
Prayer can be truly transformative, if we allow God to work through us – through our actions, our time, and our money. For example, now when someone asks me to pray for them, I try to text them encouraging words, invite them to hang out, or ask for an update immediately while they’re on my mind. Similarly, when my prayers following hurricane Harvey led me to an uncomfortable level of giving, I surrendered my finances to God’s guidance and found peace in generosity. Accompanying our prayer with action can take some practice, but I’m convinced that God is in the momentum, multiplying our efforts and helping us be more like Jesus in response to suffering.
So far, my thoughts and prayers following the horrible event in Las Vegas have nudged me to learn more about the gun laws in my own state and the voting record of my local elected officials. I am going to continue to pray for ways I can make a difference to prevent the next mass shooting by holding my elected officials accountable.
There are times when we truly can’t do anything to help a situation or a person except pray. But, more often than not, we can do something. Jesus once used a mustard seed to demonstrate that we are more powerful than we think we are. Our thoughts and prayers can be more powerful than we ever imagined, too, if we let them push us to act.
I want to close with this simple prayer: God of those who morn, God of those who are poor in spirit, God of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, give me the wisdom to know what to do in the face of suffering, and the courage to do it. Amen.