The Prayer Cop Out
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. – James 1:22-26
Violence seems to be the order of the day in our country. Reports of shootings are ever more commonplace. We cast about for solutions, but none seems to be forthcoming. We ask for new laws, and laws can change behavior, but they cannot change hearts. Only Christ can change hearts, and he does this by the power and work of the Holy Spirit. . . .
Thirty days of praying for peace and reconciliation….Will you join me? It won’t take very long. Can you think of a better way to spend a few minutes of each day? – Dr. David Watson, “Thirty Days Of Prayer For Peace And Reconciliation”, Musings And Whatnot, Aug 27, 2015
It might seem more than a little odd to read someone who claims the Christian faith to call prayer a “cop out”. What about “pray without ceasing?”; even the Epistle from James reads, in chapter 5, verse 16, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” How dare I say that prayer is a cop out, to write that nothing is accomplished by prayer!
Except, of course, I’m not “calling” prayer “a cop out”. I am, rather, pointing to a particular piece of writing, linked above, in which readers are invited to spend thirty days in prayer for peace and reconciliation. Both personal and social it would seem, at least from the opening paragraph. We are reminded just how difficult reconciliation is. We are told that real forgiveness – of ourselves, of those we consider “enemies” – is only possible through the power of God. The opportunity to spend even just a few moments each day in prayer for peace and reconciliation is offered.
There’s not a single word that even hints at the following sentence: “And when you’re done praying, get up off your asses, contact the person with whom reconciliation is needed, and get busy.” Or, perhaps: “Say ‘Amen’, then get together with folks who want sensible gun legislation; who want to work to fix the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots.” Just . . . 30 days of prayer.
Should I assume, perhaps, that action follows on prayer? I would except the powerlessness and helplessness of human beings in the face both of social injustice and violence as well as interpersonal conflict is presented as nearly insurmountable. Yes – through prayer, we may indeed find the strength to do what needs to be done. Offering 30 Days Of Prayer For Peace And Reconciliation without offering 30 Days Of Action Toward Peace And Reconciliation is a bit like telling the poor, hungry, homeless person “Go in peace!” (James 2:16).
As Wesleyans, we believe ourselves to be co-workers through and with the Spirit both for making disciples as well as for the transformation of the world. This Spirit is the Spirit of Life, the Holy breath of God that moved the first human beings to live, that blew across the primordial chaos bringing light and Creation. We are not just a praying people, although Lord knows we do indeed need to do that. What we do not need to do is accept an invitation only to prayer. We need, rather, 30 Days Of Prayer And Action For Peace And Reconciliation: Spend time in prayer each day to be reconciled with God, with our fellow Christians, with those toward whom we may feel anger or enmity. Then get up, walk out the door, and get busy reconciling. Get busy being peace makers. I’m not denying that real peace and forgiveness and reconciliation comes through the presence of the Spirit; I’m only saying if that Spirit isn’t prompting you to act right now, despite strong emotions and overwhelming obstacles, then perhaps the first thing for which you need to be praying is a clean heart, reconciled to God.
One final note. Presenting us as helpless without the Spirit in the face of a social issue like gun violence is absurd. Solutions abound; political corruption and cowardice, combined with our current poisoned political atmosphere, make any action on any vital national issue impossible. Saying that law don’t change hearts, if followed to its logical conclusion, is counsel to inaction. After all, why have laws for murder, since we know people are going to commit murder? Laws against theft obviously offer no deterrent because the hearts of thieves aren’t changed. Whether or not laws change hearts is not the issue: Changing laws to reduce violence, to increase justice, for a more fair society really do reduce violence, increase justice, and make for a more fair society.