In the midst of countless tragedies within recent years, many people have begun to admonish the idea of sending “thoughts and prayers” due to the belief that these things are ineffective and ultimately unhelpful in any practical way. Amongst the people who have called for a reevaluation of this statement are Christians and non-Christians alike, but for many believers, it has left them with a terrifying question: is prayer enough? The quick answer is a loud “YES” shouted from rooftops, but at the same time, it is important to understand a few things that happen with prayer. In general, prayer has become something we often take for granted, and instead of really considering what it means to pray, we often toss out empty “I’m praying for you” statements while rarely coming before the Lord at all. However, by turning to scripture, one starts to realize the reason we pray, what it does for us, and what we are to do with it.
Perhaps the best place to start when considering prayer within scripture is the Psalms. In this book, David wrestles with and delights in the Lord; he praises and questions; he gives thanks and asks for more. Through all this, readers find a consistency in David’s submission to God. He continuously returns to the recognition that God has the control and the authority over his life. In Psalms 10, David begins with an uncertainty, “Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”(10:1). Throughout the chapter, the psalmist evaluates the situation and reflects on who God is. Ultimately, he returns back to a state of trust: “O Lord, you heard the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart.”(10:17). David prays to ask questions and to seek an answer from the Lord. He does not place God in a place where He must meet David’s demands and wishes. Really, the psalmist’s prayers have less to do with David and much more to do with the authority of God.
Throughout the Psalms, we can see that prayer gives us a beautiful space to communicate with God. This does not mean the space merely gives us opportunity to praise Him, though it does this as well. It also gives us room to ask questions to God and from Him to answer us and to reveal himself. In addition to the scriptures, we use prayer to understand who God is. With this, we can say prayer helps us to know God more and to grow deeper in our affection for Him. David saw God more clearly when he asked questions that gave God the opportunity to reveal more of Himself.
As our knowledge of God increases, so do our affections for Him. As our affections grow, so will our loving obedience to Him. He continues to serve as our authority, but we enjoy His rule more and more because we understand how good He is. This causes the believer to obey out of reverence for God instead of merely following good morals and avoiding bad behavior. Christ perfectly exemplifies this when he cries out in the Garden of Gethsemane that He wants God’s will to be done, not His own. Christ, perfectly knowing the Father’s will, humbly submits to this will and perfectly obeys it. His declaration that the Father’s will be done does not simply mean that Christ will lay back and wait for it to happen; rather Christ perfectly participates in the unfolding of the Father’s perfect will. Every moment that Jesus was held “captive” by the Romans, He had the ability overthrow them. Jesus Christ, being fully God, was never once defeated by becoming “captured.” Instead, every moment from Gethsemane to Golgotha, Christ humbly and perfectly submitted to the will of the Father in order for God’s will to be done.
It can be difficult to understand this as humans without ultimate authority. We understand that when one group surrounds another, the surrounded one must either surrender to or overcome the group around it. Ultimately this logic can lead one to think that Jesus merely submitted to the will of the Romans and the will of the Pharisees and the will of Pontius Pilate and all of that lead Him to Calvary. However, this misses the “fully God” aspect of Jesus’s incarnation. Since He fully exists as God, man cannot overcome Him. Instead, Christ’s ultimate submission was of His own will to the Father’s, so when he prays, “let your will be done,” he understands that this means He must act on God’s will.
Naturally, this opens up another problem of deciphering God’s will. If God truly exists outside of the capabilities of human minds, no person can ever fully do this. Luckily, one of the greatest beauties of Christianity is that God has revealed Himself through His word, and by giving Himself through the Spirit, He gives humanity a chance to know Him. As people begin to know Him, His will becomes accessible, and we can know Him by pursuing His word through reading scripture and by having the Spirit dwell within us. A proper understanding of the Trinity knows that the Holy Spirit is fully God; so connecting with the Spirit is connecting with God. As the relationship builds, so does the knowledge of His will and the obedience to it.
One may think of a husband surprising his wife with a dinner date. Since he knows his wife, he knows where she would willto go, so he takes her there to honor her. What a disappointing gift it would be for the wife if the husband brought her to the best seafood place in town because he did not know she had a shellfish allergy. Instead, to truly give her something she would love, the husband must know the wife and he does this not by shaping her to what he wants her to be, but by giving her space to reveal herself. In prayer, we give God space to reveal Himself. We enter into a community with God, which ought to be a great joy for us. When we approach God with our burdens and baggage, we do not wait for Him to magically take them away. Instead, we submit them before Him and He shows us how much he triumphs over all things, even if that happens in ways we may not immediately understand. Faith in God includes faith in His will, so prayer also gives us a chance to exercise our faith. We approach Him, trusting that He will listen, and we put our faith in the way He leads us. When we recognize this, we see the great power of the cross and the Spirit because, with the reality of these two things, God has bestowed His triumph over evil in us, and we too can act in a manner pleasing to the Lord.
Since the triumphant power of God lives within us, our actions matter. This means that we should not stop thinking about tragedy and victims after we simply declare that we send our thoughts and prayers. Our prayers should push us to action in some way. Just because Christians are not saved by their works does not mean we do not work once we are saved. On the contrary, since we are saved, our works have a larger impact because the victorious God acts within us and through us. However, we must recognize that the more we pray and pursue God, the more He lives within us and as He lives within us, the more transformed our lives should be. We should strive for action because God gave us the possibility to act out His will through the saving power of the Son and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Our prayer and our practice come together, then. With this in mind, we cannot abandon prayer in the face of tragedy, but we must pray for God’s will to be done and recognize that He has given us the power to do it.
Joseph is a writer, editor, husband, and perpetual student. He is passionate about telling the world how the Gospel meets the needs of culture. He is the co-founder of Grounds and currently serves as the editorial director.