Last November, yet another gun-fuelled massacre took place in the United States. More than 20 people were murdered, and as many badly hurt, when a lone killer walked into a Texas church and opened fire on men, women and children. The outpouring of grief was immediate and intense. But was it all genuine?
One thing we heard repeatedly was that people were “praying” for the victims and their families, and that their “thoughts and prayers” were with them. Prayer is vital, of course, and no Christian life is even close to completion without it. But it has to be in addition to effort and not a substitute for it. In other words, to pray rather than act is a betrayal and a misunderstanding of prayer.
After the Texas obscenity, many Republican politicians who are financially and electorally beholden to the National Rifle Association and who repeatedly vote against any form of meaningful gun control announced that they, too, were praying. Praying, that is, for the victims of the very policies they have defended and protected for generations. The hypocrisy is nauseating.
But even at a less acute level, we have too often reduced the concept of prayer to a social nicety, a spasm or a greeting as banal as “hello” or “see you later.” It’s far worse south of the border, but it permeates Canadian society as well. It’s partly a product of the decay of communication due to social media and the demands of 24-hour news for instant emotional reaction. If we don’t know what to say, we announce that we’re praying.
Prayer is opening the doors of our soul, the innermost vulnerabilities of our being, to our Creator. It is speaking and listening to God, making requests that may be answered in any number of ways, sometimes not to our liking. As theologian C.S. Lewis asked, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never been to a dentist?”
To reduce all of this to an empty response to difficult and even terrifying situations is to misunderstand prayer and to exploit the holy. In all honesty, while we cannot see into his heart, do we sincerely believe that when U.S. President Donald Trump tells us he is praying, as he often does, that he means it?
Prayer can be difficult; it can seem as if it’s unheard; it can be transforming; it can be profound. But it is never pointless, and it is more about changing us than changing God. If it doesn’t lead to a nobler life and to a greater love for our neighbour, it is flawed prayer, and perhaps not even prayer at all. To pray for an end to hunger while ignoring the hungry, or for an end to war while remaining silent about the arms trade, is not prayer but indifference.
Michael Coren is an author and journalist in Toronto.
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