Thoughts and Prayers

Psalm 23 tells us:

 Even though I walk

through the darkest valley, 

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

This is a description of life.  We live in a world where darkness can decide to take up a weapon and attack strangers in a school, in a mall, in a church, in a park, in a movie theater.  And there is nothing that can be done to stop it. We are all going to die some day. We don’t know when.  We don’t know where.  We don’t know how.  And there isn’t a thing we can do about it.  Life is beyond our control.

Politicians and pundits will disparage the offering of “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy as meaningless drivel that accomplishes nothing.  At first glance it is hard to deny that the peddlers of outrage have a point. After all, James wrote:

 “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  (James 2:15-17)

But we miss the caveat inherent in James’ words.  James’ assumption is that we have the ability to solve the problem before us if we would only act.  Taking care of feeding and clothing someone huddling at our feet is well within our wheelhouse.  But resurrecting the dead?  Preventing mayhem?  Stopping crime?  Ending bloodshed?  Perhaps not.

The Bible also warns us against putting our trust in rulers, relying on other people, or even trusting in ourselves. 

Instead, we are encouraged to rely on God.

In the time of Samuel, God condemned the Israelites for asking for a king. God told Samuel that their request was a rejection of God.  He argued that it was no different than when they had  replaced Him with idols.  It was just more of the same.  Relying upon a human leader for salvation is no different than relying on any other false god.  And that sort of trust is doomed to disappoint in the end.

I cannot prevent criminals from hurting people. I cannot bring back the dead.  I cannot restore sight to the blind.  I cannot make the deaf hear.  I cannot make the lame walk.  I cannot so much as cure the common cold. About all I can do is bore you to death and help you catch up on your sleep. How am I supposed to solve mass shootings, end starvation, or bring peace to the world?

If I can’t solve those existential problems, why would I imagine some politician yelling at me and demanding my vote is going to be any more successful than I would be? Since when has any politician done what they say they are going to do?  How are they better than me?  How are they better than anybody else? Why would I put my trust in them?

And then I return to thinking about prayers.  And you know what?  The book of Revelation speaks directly to that issue. 

The point of the book of Revelation is that the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of God.  And how will it happen?  Because we choose the right politicians? Is there even such a thing as a right politician? 

What did Jesus say?  Three times in the book of Revelation we see the prayers of all God’s people being poured out on the kingdom of the world.  And they are remarkably powerful and effective. More effective and powerful than the rulers of an empire.

And James also had something to say about prayers, too, after that part about words being meaningless when it comes to filling empty bellies (not unlike the ravings of political hacks).  In James 5:15-16 he wrote that prayer is not, in fact, empty and meaningless:

“And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

You want to change the world?  We all do.  The church can do that.  Not by using the weapons of the world.  Not through joining the rage mongering of politicians who really only care about getting elected.  Instead, by prayer: because God is real and God can intervene in our world. Prayer is not just meaningless pleasantries blowing in the wind. Our prayers are not just feel good vibes. 

We can change the world through our prayers and through our proclamation of the Good News that Jesus Christ has come, that he gave himself for our sins, that he rose again, and that he is coming back:

Comfort, comfort my people,

says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed,

that her sin has been paid for,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

And then Isaiah went on:

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare

the way for the Lord;

make straight in the desert

a highway for our God. b

Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and all people will see it together.

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,

and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

because the breath of the Lord blows on them.

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,

go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good news to Jerusalem, r

lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid;

say to the towns of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,

and he rules with a mighty arm.

See, his reward is with him,

and his recompense accompanies him.

11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:3-11)

We must not underestimate the power of prayer and the proclamation of the Good News to transform a life.  A single transformed life has endless repercussions. 

Jesus is the answer to the world’s problems.  We’d do well to remember that and to take it seriously. 

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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