Why Pray in the Face of Tragedy?
It is almost sort of a cultural ritual now that when tragedy strikes—a hurricane hits Haiti, an act of terrorism befalls a city, a global, deadly pandemic shuts all of us indoors—some get on social media and send their "thoughts and prayers" out into the world. This is then followed by the second half of this cultural ritual: the spiritually skeptical jump into the comment section and point out with frustration that what is needed in tragedy or crisis is action, not magical wish fulfillment. It’s like the call and response of a traditional church liturgy.
COVID-19 is no exception; last Sunday the President declared a national day of prayer, and shortly thereafter folks took to Twitter to diligently fulfill their end of the bargain:
DHH elaborated further down-thread, "Please do pray according to whatever believes [sic] you may hold. But for prayer to be part of an official government response to this pandemic is insane. Doubly so at a time where the rest of that response is in complete shambles." Arguably, he has a point: the Trump administration has not done an exemplary job of responding to the coronavirus. As we all know by now, the most critical time to determine the outcome of the pandemic is before it feels like a real threat… and the President made light of it until it got too serious to defeat easily. Combined with bureaucratic bumbling and political lethargy, we are now seeing the beginnings of a major economic recession, unprecedented social disruption, and a general sense of societal panic. DHH's tweet is honestly pretty understandable.
Prayer is not Magical Wish Fulfillment
Arguably, however, people would decry prayer even if the administration's response had been competent, because plenty of people today understand this "prayer" that the President is calling for to be a sort of magical, spiritual wish fulfillment.
"If I just pray fervently enough, the cancer will go away." "If I pray, then the devastation of a tsunami will suddenly disappear." "If I pray, I will no longer be unemployed and I will get a job." "If I pray, then I won't get COVID-19."
Sometimes it's just an example of flimsy pop theology, but other times you will find preachers teaching this earnestly to people from pulpits. Let me say this clearly: Prayer is not magical wish fulfillment.
Prayer is not an Excuse to Avoid Action
Other people interpret prayer simply as empty words spoken so as to avoid action:
[Neighbor] "Hey, we're moving this Saturday, and we could really use some help." [Me] "Oh wow, yeah I definitely will pray that God raises up help for you in your time of need." [Neighbor] "Umm yes thanks but actually I was wondering if…" [Me] "Oh hey sorry, looks like I'm getting a call."
This is prayer-as-spiritualized-laziness. When people need help, you should help them (if you are able, obviously) instead of just saying vaguely nice things to them. In fact, scripture urges us to avoid this trap: "Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18 NIV). Prayer is not an excuse to avoid action.
Prayer is not an Alternative to Compassion
Similarly, sometimes people view prayer as a sort of pleasantry that allows us to sidestep the emotional work of actually caring about other people.
[Neighbor] "My grandmother was just diagnosed with Alzheimers, and it has been so painful to watch her slowly lose her memory. I feel like there's nothing I can do. This beautiful woman is just… fading away. I hate this." [Me] "Wow yeah man, definitely sending prayers/good vibes your way."
In the pain of life, I don't need "good vibes," I need tangible love. A genuinely sympathetic word. A hug. Let me see real concern in your eyes. It is an uncomfortable thing when you are having a fine and dandy day and then someone drops a bomb of personal bad news on you that doesn't really affect you in any way. It's tempting to try to escape the discomfort of the situation as quickly as possible, and "sending thoughts and prayers" accomplishes that, but prayer is not an alternative to being compassionate.
So What is Prayer?
There are plenty of reasons people say that they pray. A "thoughts and prayers" news clip at just the right time can be a politically expedient thing. A 🙏 emoji can signal your virtue to a specific crowd. Saying that you'll pray allows you to complete your end of the conversation without having to actually, you know, pray. But if prayer is not these things, then what is it?
Prayer Engenders Compassion
These days my attention flits back and forth between tweets, news articles, Slack discussions, work, my children, and a million other little things. But there is something about the work of focusing my mind for a sustained period of time on the plight of another. Doing so begins to germinate a real sense of empathy. As I speak to the living God about the pains and trials of another, my imagination begins to feel their pain as if it were my own. The word "compassion" means "to suffer with," and this is what begins to happen as I pray for another. Notably, this does not happen merely when I say I will pray for another. Prayer—and even fasting!—as a means of lament, sorrow, repentance, solidarity, and yes, supplication, necessarily drives us to be with God and with the suffering as we plead for him to "be near to the brokenhearted" (Psalm 34:18 ESV). When we pray these things, the natural consequence is compassion.
Prayer Spurs Action
As my family and I have prayed about COVID-19 over the past couple weeks, as we have continually cast our hearts and minds upon this terrible pandemic ravaging our world, we have had lightbulbs go off about creative ways we can give of our time, money, and other resources. There are needs in my neighborhood and community that we are uniquely positioned to meet. I already work from home full time; my wife already homeschools our children, and consequently this quarantine doesn’t feel that different to us at all.
This means we can be a source of stability for our destabilized neighbors who are trying to figure out what it would mean to homeschool their children: "What do you even do with a three-year-old all day long?" I have not been furloughed or laid off at work, so we are well-positioned to aid our neighbors who have been. We are young and healthy, so we are well-positioned to venture out into risky situations and serve at local homeless shelters where this disease is especially ravaging (as the mayor of Denver has, in fact, encouraged young, healthy people to do). These are just a few of the ideas that have sprung to mind as we have prayed and turned our thoughts toward what God might have us do in this time.
As a praying people, we recognize that action is a necessary response to something like the coronavirus, but that by itself, action is not a sufficiently human response. People are more than the sum of their problems that need to be fixed. Prayer pairs well with action, for it is then that we are doing both the work of the hands and the work of the heart. We pray, "God, please bring to mind how we can be your hands and tangibly show the love of God to our neighbor right now."
Prayer is Presenting Our Requests Before the Almighty
Here's the thing: while we do not believe prayer is a sort of magical wish fulfillment, we do understand ourselves to be speaking to the God who made this universe, as well as all of us who stand within it on the planet Earth. We believe that sometimes God does do the miraculous, and so we ask him to do so. Last year my family had about $100K in medical bills for my baby boy who suddenly developed liver issues out of the blue. We shuttled him from doctor to doctor and from hospital to hospital running every test they could think of on him. The doctor eliminated every single possibility of what it could be, and so we were left knowing (as the result of a biopsy while he was still an infant) that his liver had significant scarring on it from something and we didn't know what that something was. They kept monitoring his levels, and over the course of about six months his liver just sort of got back down into expected territory on its own.
Was that a miracle?
After all, we did give him the iron supplements that he was prescribed. We did dutifully take him in for a shot of this and a shot of that every week. The doctors did invest a whole lot of time thinking and caring for my son, and so you could say, "It is not a miracle that he was healed, but the result of the careful, continued practice of medicine." I think you'd be right... and wrong. In spite of valiant medical efforts, cancer patients die all the time, even when all things were done right and they had a good chance of survival. We are not machines; it is not as if you simply flip open the repair manual and work the problem step by step.
The fact that medicine works at all, ever, is a kindness of God. To acknowledge him as God in the healing of my son does not in any way discount or discredit the doctors, for we believe that God's work and our work are concurrent. My son's healed liver was a surprise to us, and it was a surprise to our doctors as well, and we attribute it to divine kindness. It was miraculous in that way, then, and even if some day we are able to understand biologically or medically what happened in his body, it would still be miraculous. It was the outcome we had prayed for. A miracle is not just something that we don't have an answer for. Whether we have explanations for how our diseases are cured or not, they are evidences of God's presence and power to work in the dirt and disease of our world.
Should we Pray for COVID-19?
Yes. I am not a medical doctor, nor am I a nurse. Neither is my wife. We are incompetent to do that sort of work that is deeply necessary right now, but we can walk in compassion and uphold them in prayer through the long, long hours they will have to work in the upcoming weeks and months. We cannot fix a single problem in Wuhan, but as we pray for our neighbors, fellow citizens of the United States, and fellow human beings of the world, we are moved to give to organizations doing good work. We are moved to fast so that we will need less food as our panicked neighbors clean every last shelf off in the grocery store and to have clarity of mind about what really matters here. We are moved to call up friends and relatives on FaceTime and reassure them that they are loved and remembered in their isolation. We are moved to volunteer at homeless shelters and serve those who are being hit way harder than we are. We pray and ask God to alleviate suffering, not because we can force him to do so by being fervent enough but because we can bring our hopes and desires to him whether we are fervent or not.
We are not able to know the hearts of those who tweet out "thoughts and prayers." Perhaps it is motivated by political reasons or by a desire to signal a certain kind of virtue. We have no way of knowing, and the fact of the matter is that it is a far more productive response to actually pray than to spend one second deciphering the intentions of another.
Prayer is not easy, or simple, or expedient. Prayer is not a way to force God's hand. Prayer is not an alternative to compassion or an excuse to avoid action. Instead, it flips all those things. Prayer is difficult, mysterious, and personal, and it drives us to love our neighbors in thought, word, and deed. Yes, we should pray in the face of tragedy.