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Thinking and Praying

A post from 2009 called “Our Thoughts Are With You” has been getting an unusual amount of traffic today due, I can only assume, to people’s wrestling with how to think and respond to the unfolding tragedy in Japan. I have received a few emails today loosely related to the question of how (if at all) we are to talk about suffering, whether from the perspective of belief in a providential God or not. Do we attempt to “explain” or are all such attempts offensive by definition? Do we say we are praying? Thinking? Do our hearts go out to those affected? Our minds? Our hands and feet? Our wallets? We see images and hear stories like the ones coming out of Japan, and feel we must have something to say. So… what?

To be sure, it is always somewhat perilous to force words into the context of suffering (I think of Job’s “miserable comforters“), but I thought I would re-post an edited version of the original today.

On one level, saying “our thoughts are with you” is a relatively safe and pragmatic approach. In a pluralistic country like Canada, where many different faiths in many different gods/non-gods are practiced, it is no longer politically correct or fashionable or acceptable to say “our prayers are with you” in the face of tragedy. But we feel we have to say something.

For many of us, our words, our thoughts, our prayers—whether of the situation in Japan or any other tragedy—come from places of relative comfort. But we feel that somehow their pain is our pain for the simple reason that it is human pain. So how do we publicly acknowledge this?

Well, at least some of  us wish and think. We offer our somewhat resigned and bewildered expressions of sympathy and solidarity to those who suffer. We no longer know which gods (if any) are worth praying to. We no longer have any broadly accepted reference point within which to locate our tragedies. All we have are our wishes and our thoughts—such meagre offerings in the face of the storms of life.

In a sense, of course, our thoughts and our wishes are fairly useless. What does it mean to say that our “wishes” are with a family whose loved one met her tragic end in the crushing waves of the Pacific? We wish things like tsunamis and earthquakes didn’t have happen? We wish these strangers well as they deal with their loss? What good is a wish?What good is a thought?

Or, for that matter, what good is a prayer? Is saying “our prayers are with you” qualitatively different than offering our wishes or our thoughts? Even if we (quite appropriately) resist the urge to offer “reasons” for suffering, does attempting to locate pain within a framework of cosmic meaning change anything?

Obviously, many would say no. Horrible things are always happening, after all. Rain is always falling on the just and the unjust irrespective of what we are thinking or wishing or praying. There are answered prayers from the perspective of the faithful, of course, just as there are wishes that come true for those who would never give a glance to heaven. Some of our thoughts are just about hopeful enough to be prayers and some of our prayers are little more than half-hearted wishes directed God-knows-where.

So what’s the difference between a thought and a prayer? Maybe just that those who pray have not yet given up hope that there is help and healing on the horizon—that the hurts and the aches, the joys and the triumphs, the tragedies and trials, and the hopes and fears that are such a deep part of all of us will one day find their place in a future of peace, and that somehow God can and does help us participate in this promised future even now, amidst the rubble.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tyler Brown #

    My question would be something like this:

    What is the point of prayer? The (natural) event has happened and a series of events are unfolding. If we pray enough does one planned aftershock not happen? Are the end of several lives now saved? If there is enough prayers does the set course we were on change? If so what does that say about God? Are his decions able to be changed through prayer?

    Either it is the same as hope (the thought of an outcome to motivate oneself through present circumstance) or it has the potential to alter God’s hand. The second option brings up a whole lot of issues.

    March 11, 2011
    • Well, your questions are obviously among the bigger and more mysterious ones out there… It’s one of those cases where Scripture seems to affirm two contradictory views: a) God’s will is fixed and cannot be altered (e.g., Numbers 23:19); and b) God allows the course of history to be altered by the prayers of human beings (e.g., Exodus 32:1-14).

      However that question is resolved (I would lean toward an emphasis upon the latter), I certainly don’t think there is a critical mass of prayer that God needs to hear before God will act. As you allude to, that would point to a fairly frightful view of God. A God who would let a little Japanese girl be crushed in the rubble if only 5 prayers were offered but would save her for 10 would be extremely difficult to worship.

      For me, at least as interesting as the question “why pray?” is “why have people prayed?” We are obviously not the first ones to notice the lack of one-to-one correspondence between our prayers and the events of our lives and our world. Why might such an empirically fruitless endeavour (if prayer is understood as getting what we want from God) have persisted throughout history? Is prayer uniquely difficult in modernity? If so, why?

      And, of course, prayer is more than just getting desirable outcomes from God. Christians have always prayed as a way of attempting to align their wills with God’s. We may never know if prayer changes God, but it can certainly change us. I wouldn’t want to limit prayer to an elaborate self-help strategy, but it’s certainly part of the picture.

      Either it is the same as hope (the thought of an outcome to motivate oneself through present circumstance) or it has the potential to alter God’s hand. The second option brings up a whole lot of issues.

      Or, by some strange theological alchemy, it’s both.

      March 11, 2011
    • Ken #

      Re: What is the point of prayer?

      Here is what I think is the point of such prayer as you have in mind for most people who pray. When tragedy strikes and either we know people who are suffering, or we ourselves are suffering, prayer is a final appeal. First we try to help personally in any way we can, and we appeal to others to help too, and when that is not enough, we pray. That is the point – to do everything we possibly can.

      I think most prayer is not of this kind. Praise is a common “point” of prayer, although “point” probably does not go with praise. Genuine praise, I think, comes most often from joy. It has no point, it just wells up inside and comes out. Lamentation works the same way, but comes from hurting rather than joy.

      I find great pleasure in prayer associated with lectio divina. Perhaps such pleasure is not the point of it, and maybe it has no empirical point at all unless one counts time with God in such terms. The pleasure of it is enough.

      In general, the question, “what is the point of prayer,” is like the questions: what is the point of music or art or sport?

      March 12, 2011
      • James #

        ” “what is the point of prayer,” is like the questions: what is the point of music or art or sport?”
        I agree. Prayer changes things just as those activities do- but not in the same way science does.

        March 12, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        “I agree. Prayer changes things just as those activities do- but not in the same way science does.”

        James, what does it change? Is it a method to delude ourselves into having hope? If so, why not just call it hope, as hope can be “a final appeal,” to events we know are out of our control.

        Sport and music are very different from prayer IMO. For example, some seek and display excellence through sport and music. Others do it for for leisure. Sport contributes to health, and health to well being. Music has been shown to expand the mind in a significant way, and can create beauty. Yes, prayer can have psychological benefits to one’s self and even to others. But I question the use of such psychology benefits other than lifting spirits, the same way hope and sympathy can.

        If prayer can change the will of God, or the unfolding of events, I don’t know how the problems of such as system can be rationalized.

        March 14, 2011
      • Ken #


        Re: “Is it a method to delude ourselves into having hope?”

        It is not a delusion. It is a basis for hope that transcends chance and necessity.

        Many Christians, I think most, believe that prayer does affect the course of history, subject to one limit. If we imagine that the will of God is to fulfill the promises made through the prophets, then prayer will not change that (as in the Numbers passage Ryan referenced. And by the way, this the same issue in the Exodus passage he referenced.) But no one in faith would ever pray for such a thing anyway. The promises made through the prophets represent love and mercy and kindness. It is the Christian faith that these drive history and the future, and that faith is the basis for hope.

        If only chance and necessity drive history, if they are not transcended by goodness in the order of the cosmos, then such hope is false.

        The problem with making a final conclusion that chance and necessity drive history is one to which contemporary philosophers of the linguistic turn testify, along with philosophers of nominalism in all ages (as well as many methaphysical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.) Even while evolution operates by chance and necessity in the estimation of Darwin and contemporary biology, it is quite un-Darwinian to conclude reality is ultimately constrained by chance and necessity. It is Darwinian, and empirical, ironically, to side with the nominalists.

        March 15, 2011
      • James #

        Hi Tyler
        I liked Ken’s analogy because it is not the normal scientific paradigm of testing the efficacy of prayer. How does one test the efficacy of music or art? [sports is a bit different at some levels but I understand why he put that in the list]
        Prayer, in my view is based on a relationship like that of parent and child [that is not an analogy in the normal sense of the word].
        On the one hand a child who attempts to use their relationship with a parent to manipulate circumstances [even for noble causes] violates the relationship.
        On the other hand a child does have access to their parent by virtue of the relationship and that access does change things both large and small. A relationship is the source of great comfort but when I ask my parent for something I do so assuming it is in their power to do something. They don’t always agree to my requests.

        Similarly, I believe we are to pray for things both great and small as part of the relationship we have with our Heavenly Father.

        March 16, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        I am sorry, maybe its my own way of it looking at it, but neither you and Ken in my opinion are answering the question.

        You state that prayer is different but don’t really say how.

        ” I do so assuming it is in their power to do something. They don’t always agree to my requests.”

        But, they sometimes do… and this is where the problem arises.

        March 17, 2011
      • James #

        No apology required, Tyler. It’s obviously complicated and actually hearing the actual question is hard work. I’ll try again to actually give you my answer to your question.
        But to help me, I have a question for you- What is the problem you referred to above?

        March 18, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        So say prayer does change something, then God didn’t know the outcome. However, one could say he did know the prayer would happen and therefore knew the outcome. If that is true, then the Calvinist position makes sense. However, where does free agency begin to fit into such a system?

        March 18, 2011
      • James #

        My explanation is as follows, Tyler.
        In the context of your question, as I understand it, the Bible makes unequivocal claims-
        1. God knows the beginning from the end
        2. Humans have the capacity to chose
        Since Augustine [though he was not the first to formulate the question this way] there have been valiant attempts to reconcile these 2 statements because they seem [as you point out] to contradict each other. Calvinists have worked particularly hard at this in the last 500 years.
        My answer, which is part of a pre-Augustinian tradition, is that this is a false juxtaposition- that 2 completely separate domains are being discussed here. An analogy would be to try to reconcile a math construct with a psychology construct. Each makes a claim within its own domain and can only meaningfully be discussed in its own context.
        Those who chose one or the other- according to this analogy- are asking us to chose between math and psychology. I feel we should not do so- and that is why I can be frustrated by Calvinists. I think they are trying to make one domain trump another.
        I hope that this doesn’t sound evasive but if it does, feel free to say so.

        March 18, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Prayer is more than hope. God listens to prayer. God acts on prayer. As love, he will respond to all prayer that is love. Do we pray? Do we pray love?

    Our ancestors would have thought that they were accountable with regard to great tragedy. Should we consider such a point of view today?

    Dear Lord Jesus
    I despair for your children who suffer great tragedy
    I despair for my brothers and sisters
    I acknowledge that my sin contributes to suffering, mine and theirs
    I acknowledge that my sin binds me to death.
    I beg forgiveness
    I beg for relief for the suffering of the innocent
    May all who have suffered unjustly be made worthy of the promises of Christ
    May all who repent be forgiven.

    March 12, 2011
    • Our ancestors would have thought that they were accountable with regard to great tragedy. Should we consider such a point of view today?

      Our ancestors weren’t necessarily right.

      I shudder to think that there are those who might start looking for somewhere (or someone) to fix accountability around this tragedy (although, regrettably, I expect such pronouncements are forthcoming from pulpits this weekend).

      March 12, 2011
      • Ken #

        Not just “ancestors.” The Bible says this, at least with respect to the great events in the history of Israel.

        March 12, 2011
    • LarryS #

      On prayer.

      I really don’t ‘get’ prayer. Of course my getting it or not (ie. understanding prayer may not matter a great deal. “Getting it” or not I still do it, probably not as much as I should. My my prayers are bathed with questions, angst and at times a measure of doubt. I hear that 1000’s of bodies are floating in the sea and we are called to pray for the situation. I wonder how or and to what end? And now there is the radioactivity thing to think/pray about.

      Do we pray that the reactors quit spewing radiation? Perhaps God would say, if you live on an island that has a history of earthquakes don’t build reactors. That reminds me of something that happened years ago, I was riding horse out on the prarie with a friend who thought that God might somehow be inclined towards my prayers and he asked me to pray for rain. I answered him thus: years ago this was a dry place, pretty much a desert. Then folk like you came and started farming. Why should God suddenly alter climatic conditions so we can get rain in a desert that we knew was here before we began farming? Not much of a pastoral answer. But it gave us both something to talk about as we rode under the hot midday sun.

      March 16, 2011
      • I wonder how or and to what end?

        I wonder too. It’s hard to know how to pray—are we asking God to suspend the laws of physics… eliminate cause and effect… override human wills… reverse time…? What are we actually asking for when we “pray for Japan?”

        More often than not, I simply pray for things like comfort, peace, strength, courage… tools to face the horrors God allows. But these can certainly seem like small and insignificant requests in the face of such enormous tragedy.

        (Love the response to your friend, by the way, however “un-pastoral” :).)

        March 16, 2011
      • Ken #

        At this point, I suggest we pray that the radiation will be contained, for the sake of humanity and many other creatures as well.

        March 16, 2011
      • Here is another good option.

        March 16, 2011
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Perhaps our ancestors weren’t right, or wholly so, at any rate. But with regards to “why people pray” certainly they were imbued with a sense that a portion of suffering came from “within” and was a consequence of their behavior. Thinking, acting and praying that outcomes for the many will improve if I as an individual make concrete effort to be faithful to the Gospels, seems consistent with our heritage and consistent with what many feel the Holy Spirit is communicating to us.

    The more radical intuit for me is feeling that too much of our understanding of what truly constitutes suffering is false. Death does not have the last word. Those who are innocent, those who have suffered unjustly, even unto the pain of death are not victims, they are martyrs. They have and or will be, redeemed. Eternal glory shall be theirs. God has promised.

    We will continue to mourn; for them, for us, for all. We must also though make room for a joyful understanding that however the end, eternal glory awaits the faithful.

    March 12, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    If we could do only one thing, what should it be?

    March 13, 2011
    • Tyler Brown #

      Treat others better than ourselves.

      March 14, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Hi Tyler, sorry for taking so long to respond. I think the answer to your question is found in the process. Why Pray? Pray and find out. If it is important for you to know if God is real or not, ask Him to reveal Himself to you.

        Like any discipline worth having it may take some time. Stick with it.

        March 21, 2011

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