No doubt all of us are aware of the disparaging remarks that were made about prayer in the aftermath of last week’s shooting. Among others the New York Daily News discouraged prayer on December 3rd with an article entitled “God Isn’t Fixing This.” So we’ve reached another tipping point: people are annoyed with Christian prayers because they are ineffective and get in the way of real progress. Indeed, we even might be tempted to agree! Things are, as expected, “waxing worse and worse” in accordance with God’s sovereign will, so why bother making a public display of prayer? The following apologia for prayer attempts to answer this question (and also to add a few correctives about how and why we pray) from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9–13:
- “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” This first line reveals that the primary need of the present order is not to be temporally “fixed,” but to acknowledge God for who he is. We pray that through the carnage men will see God with illumined minds and appraise him accurately. We pray because none of us unceasingly regard him as we ought and we need to remedy this fault. This is the first function of prayer.
- “Thy kingdom come.” The second line makes us uncomfortably aware that God has not promised to to “fix” the present world order, or perhaps better, that his ultimate fix will not be an irenic but a savage one. The world will become more broken as time passes, not less, and it will finally be consumed. We pray here not for a patching of the present order, but for the advent of a kingdom that is not. This is the Christian’s great hope, and it is in these most awful of times that the Christian is most drawn to reflect upon and pray for the realization of that hope.
- “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Here God assures us that temporal relief is not entirely elusive. God can and does act in his providence to sustain the present order through the civil acknowledgement of God’s moral will (not his sovereign will), such that we may “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2) and receive “our daily bread” (not the magazine, mind you, but the physical sustenance of food, shelter, and safety). We pray that it will be God’s pleasure to effect this temporary fix right now—after all, our times are in his hands (Psa 31:15).
- “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Here is perhaps the most abused line in this prayer, leading at times to odd, unsolicited assurances of passivity toward unrepentant killers and violent terrorists: “We forgive you!” say the signs in San Bernardino. This response seems noble, but actually reflects something of a miscarriage of justice and atonement that confuses more than it clarifies the Christian message. We must generously forgive as Christ forgave us (so here and also in Eph 4:32, etc.), but not more generously than he (see an outstanding treatment of this point here). But let us not lose the primary request in the clarification of the secondary: we pray because we need to confess our sins—sins that, both individually and societally, stand directly in the way of chief end of man. Prayer most definitely does fix this.
- “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” We are reminded at times like these that our responses to violence are often clouded by sentiments of rage, vengeance, frustration, and irrationality that lead to imprudent words and actions (on both sides of the aisle). We pray that we and those in authority over us will not fall under the spell of the evil one and give into the kinds of reactionary evil and imprudence to which we are presently vulnerable. It’s not a matter of “praying versus doing” but praying before doing, lest we do what is short-sighted, rash, or outright wrong.
In a sense it is true that “God isn’t fixing this”—at least in the self-serving way that pagans want him to fix it. But we don’t pray simply for God to fix things to the satisfaction of American idealism. We pray because we are citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world, and we pray from the standpoint of a worldview that we do not share with our detractors. But we do pray. And we should pray.