I think about death a lot more than I used to.
It’s hard not to when stories of hurricanes, police brutality, and mass shootings flash across my screen on a seemingly constant basis. Worse is when there’s video. Frankly, I can't bring myself to click play.
I felt that all too familiar blend of pain, confusion, and fear a few weeks ago when I heard about the shootings in El Paso. In the same weekend, I saw the reports from another shooting in Dayton, Ohio.
Thirty-one innocent people dead between the two of them.
As I mourned these deaths and thought about how to respond, I couldn’t help but consider the often criticized sending of “thoughts and prayers.” It’s a difficult place to walk.
On one hand, I believe that I serve a God who meets our greatest needs, but when these things happen as often as they do, I begin to question the power of prayer. Maybe prayer is fine, but should I be doing something more? Is prayer too weak in a time like this?
The pressure to have a quick opinion and solution often just adds more confusion. Tweets make answers seem simple, as if revolutionizing laws or procedures happens overnight. It all seems too big to bear alone, so I pray — maybe because I believe it, maybe because it’s all I know how to do.
As time went on, I read through the scriptures, and while I didn’t find anything on gun policies or a quick plan to discover inner peace or anything else like that, I did encounter a powerful story about a desperate nation in the midst of tragedy. And that nation’s king, Hezekiah, modeled what it can look like to respond - first out of fear and later out of faith.
The Material Response
The nation of Assyria went on a brutal campaign to conquer all the territories it could. They succeeded with King Shalmaneser overtaking Samaria and capturing the Israelites. The next king, Sennacherib, then set his eyes on Judah and captured its major fortified cities.
In a panic, Hezekiah does the only seemingly sensible thing: give the Assyrians anything they want. In response, Sennacherib asks for so much silver and gold that Hezekiah has to strip down God’s temple to pay his debts.
Though he was considered a man of God, Hezekiah had moments like these full of fear or hopelessness. The kind of moments when one looks out into the world and asks, “What can possibly be done?” The kind of moments when one turns to the nearest potential solution.
These fear moments happen today, too: when one reads about school shootings, terror attacks, or the opioid crisis, for instance. Personally, I think if enough money could make it all go away, I’d be tempted to ransack all of God’s holiest places myself. Hezekiah was no more a monster then most of us. No, he was merely a human, one with a sinful heart like mine, who too often trusts in his own abilities and solutions to fix the big problems.
But like Hezekiah, I often don’t even recognize the greatest need.
Not a Fight Against Flesh and Blood
Even after Hezekiah abandoned hope and offered the temple’s treasures to Assyria, they did not relent. Hezekiah hid as Sennacherib sent a spokesperson to taunt Hezekiah and his people.
To Hezekiah, he said, “What are you relying on? You think mere words are strategy and strength for war: Who are you now relying on that you have rebelled against me?” (Isaiah 36:4-5).
To the people, “Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to rely on the Lord, saying ‘The Lord will certainly rescue us!’” (Isaiah 36:15).
The Assyrian spokesperson yelled an eighth century BC version of a twenty-first century AD battle cry: “Your prayers can do nothing, and your God is not coming!” Finding any sense of hope must have been agonizingly challenging. Hezekiah had exhausted his options, and they did nothing for him.
Then, with torn clothes and a repentant heart, he turned to the Lord. With the prophet Isaiah, he prays:
Lord it is true that the kings of Assyria have devasted the nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but made by human hands — wood and stone. So they have destroyed them. Now, Lord our God, please save us from his power so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are God — you alone (2 Kings 19:18).
Notice how Hezekiah addresses the terrifying reality he’s experiencing: “Lord it is true...” He was rightfully afraid of circumstances just like we might be at times, but he saw what happened when he tried to rely on his own power and resources.
At this point in the text, Hezekiah begins to see that the biggest threat is not physical, but spiritual, and the results are almost unbelievable: “The Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the power of King Sennacherib of Assyria and from the power of all others. He gave them rest on every side” (2 Chron. 32:22).
Physical threats can be bought off, fought, or defeated by human hands, but the spiritual threats need more than we’re able to give on our own. Paul reiterates this in his epistle to the Ephesians: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Political change, legal reform, and awareness can and will help physical situations, absolutely. But the evil that leads men to kill strangers is not simply physical. The act of killing may be physical, but the hate that fuels it is spiritual. As Jon Askonas recently asked, “Could it be any more obvious that mass shootings are not the isolated acts of unstable losers but a part of a battle for the American soul?”
Spiritual Power in a Secular Age
The decision to pray in the face of tragedies can seem naïve in a secular age. We do not much like to deal with the spiritual in any meaningful way today, and many Christians, myself included, can fall into the trap of the immanent, the physical. Americans especially have a long history of rugged individualism, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, and pushing all barriers out of the way oneself. In the modern, industrial West, we’ve become too confident in our ability to solve the problem ourselves with purely material or personal means
After all, wasn’t it people who cured polio? Didn’t people invent the technologies that have made life easier and more efficient? Aren’t people the ones who sign every peace treaty and famine relief agreement? Why would we then need a deity?
These are valid questions, and the story of Hezekiah offers an intriguing response. A simple reading would say that if you pray, God will save you. That can be drawn from this text, sure. But Scripture reveals other times when God doesn’t act, or at least, not in the way the other characters think he should. A classic example is found in John 11. Jesus’ friend Lazarus is dying, and Christ does not come immediately, though he was only a short distance away. Hezekiah’s story of divine salvation is not necessarily rare in Scripture, but it also is not the only way God responds to the prayers of His people. His timing and answers do not always correspond to our own
So then are our prayers merely arbitrary? Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose?
I do not think that Hezekiah’s story is primarily concerned with the outcome of the prayer. Though it is an important part of the text, it seems that we can learn quite a bit from Hezekiah’s willingness to pray despite the chaotic circumstances happening around him. We have the fortunate curse of time and space away from this text, meaning that we are so far removed from the actual threat that we do not feel the weight of the Assyrian soldiers rampaging through our city and yelling about the emptiness of our attempts to defeat them. The courage to pray in such a time as this can get lost on the reader.
Naturally, one might think instead that of course a godly king would pray! What else would he do? He’s godly! But we see through Hezekiah’s weakness and his prayer that he was truly afraid, that he had lost hope — just like I and many other people I know lose hope when we read of the tragedies we face today.
Like Hezekiah, my instinct is to turn to the physical, to the obvious, immediate — but not necessarily complete — remedy, but Hezekiah demonstrates how our attempts to use only physical remedies to spiritual problems solve very little. The Assyrian army marched on even after they were paid from the temple, and the evil continued even after barriers were put up to end them.
We need not cease the desire for physical assistance alone, but we would be wise to learn from the story of Hezekiah and the words of Paul — that our greatest danger is from an evil we don’t see and that our greatest hope is in the Spirit who defeats it. We may have moments when we lose hope, but we Christians can hold on to the promise that one day the wars in the heavenly places will end and goodness will be restored. Christ will reign as King, tragedies will disappear, and I will think of death no more.