“Pray for Paris,” wrote many people in tweets, Facebook text posts, memes, and more in the hours and days following the terrorist attacks in that European capitol two weeks ago. In response, many atheists and agnostics responded saying that “praying won’t fix anything.” Even some believers seemed to oppose prayer in favor of action, quoting the Dalai Lama, who said that “…humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”
They were assuming that prayer and action are opposed. It is true that some people see prayer as a panacea that places all the responsibility in God’s hands and none in ours. However, this is not a proper understanding or practice of prayer.
First off, prayer is not the mere repetition of words. It may involve many or few words, or none at all, according to various prayer methods and traditions, but for Christians it is less about the method and more about becoming aware of God’s presence and communicating with Him. If one’s heart and will aren’t in the external words or actions of prayer, it’s not truly prayer. Jesus himself condemned such hollow external practices (Matthew 6:7-8).
Nor should prayer be focused entirely on ourselves. As Christian prayer is presented in the Bible, it has a strongly communitarian element. When Jesus tells us to pray alone in our rooms, it is mainly in contrast to those who pray ostentatiously to attract attention and appear holy (Matthew 6:5-6). The Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father,” not “My Father.” He also tells us to join each other in prayer; that what two people ask in His name will be granted (Matthew 18:19-20); to pray for (and forgive) our enemies (Matthew 5:44); etc. Prayer should make us aware of our connectedness, and enhance it, as an exercise of human and spiritual solidarity. It should make us more selfless.
True prayer – prayer that involves the mind, heart and will – is not a rejection of responsibility. Certainly, the core of prayers of petitions (which is not the only kind of prayer) is to ask God for help with some problem, need or desire. However, more often than not God’s answer to prayer is to encourage, guide and empower people to take action to solve the problem or bring about the desired situation. Prayer and action are not intrinsically opposed; on the contrary, prayer is often the preparation and motivation for action.
Real prayer makes us open to the opportunities that God presents to us to make a difference in the lives of ourselves and of others. Sometimes those solutions and opportunities were already present, and He just opens our eyes to them; other times, He works in the hearts and minds of the people needed to create those opportunities.
Persistent, daily prayer can raise our habitual awareness of needs and possible solutions in the world around us – of how human action, guided and informed by God’s grace and inspiration, can really make a difference. It fosters a habit of compassion, as we keep in mind the suffering and needs of others.
Many of these benefits can be recognized without belief in the existence of God (although as it happens, God does exist, and His grace makes prayer effective on more than just a natural level). They have strong psychological aspects to them. Thinking of others and their needs, fostering awareness and compassion, coming together in groups to focus our hearts and minds on personal and community needs, would all have value even if God didn’t exist. Atheists should be glad that people of faith pray, as long as those prayers are truly selfless and focused on promoting the good of individuals and society.
At times, God takes a more direct role in our world in response to prayer; we are not always able to take specific action as individuals, and God chooses to step in. Miracles, in the sense of divine intervention that supersedes the laws of nature, exist. Just as an example, I have personally met people who have had medically documented miraculous healings as the result of prayer. However, they are the exception, not the rule. God created a universe with rules and inhabited it (at least our little blue planet, if not more) with intelligent life capable of making responsible decisions and of knowing what is right and wrong. He generally works through those natural means by use of inspiration, suggestion and encouragement, not by superseding the rules of the world He has created.
For prayer to be effective under these conditions, we need not just to be asking, but also to be listening. Prayer is not a one-sided conversation. Although God doesn’t usually talk to us in words, He does speak to us and guide us through the light of our conscience, through circumstances, by inspiring certain words and actions in others, by drawing our attention to situations, etc. If prayer seems ineffective, it’s sometimes because not enough people are doing it, or are not doing it right, both asking and listening, giving and receiving.
In fact, if we feel we are not getting the answer to our prayers, perhaps we should ask ourselves how much we are lending ourselves to God to help answer the prayers of others. We should keep in mind that Jesus tells us not to worry about what we need, as long as we are seeking His kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). In what does His righteousness consist? He repeatedly tells us that His commandment is to love and do good to one another (John 15:12-13), which translates into taking action on behalf of those in need (Matthew 25:32-40).
Sometimes prayer still seems ineffective; despite prayer, bad or even terrible things happen to good people, and it seems that our prayers are not heard. Entire treatises have been written on this topic, but there’s one thing I’d like to point out: God is not a vending machine, and prayers are not coins we stuff into Him expecting to receive exactly what we want by pushing a button. God is a living, free being, infinitely more intelligent and powerful than we, beyond our comprehension. He hears our prayers and takes them into account, but He sees the big picture and balances an infinity of factors: the greater good of individuals and humanity in general at any given moment and across time; respect for the gift of human freedom; respect for the laws of nature that He created and that make our world possible. He will respond as is best –not just for us, but for everyone– even if it’s not always as we’d like.
So let us not be discouraged or deceived when people say that prayer won’t help the people of Paris, or that prayer should be discarded in favor of action. True prayer, involving both asking and listening, leads to awareness of others’ needs and to action; to an outpouring of God’s grace in people’s hearts and minds and in the world. It disposes us to recognize and welcome God’s intervention in any form it takes, and makes us instruments of that intervention.
Let us pray for Paris and for other cities and towns around the world that have suffered terrorist attacks. Let us pray for the victims and their families. Let us pray for our enemies, that God may change their hearts. Let us pray that all people – according to their circumstances – will listen to God’s inspiration and participate in making prayer effective.