When Prayer Is Worthless–Some Thoughts On The Cold Weather

The bread aisle at any Kroger in the South if a meteorologist says the word "SNOW."

The bread aisle at any Kroger in the South if a meteorologist says the word “SNOW.”

If you’re like most of the people in this country right now, you’re probably dealing with the effects of some really cold weather. As I type this, there is a small layer of snow coming down outside, and tomorrow I expect to wake up and see hundreds of pictures of car thermometers and snow-covered yards on my Facebook feed chronicling the Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon or Snowtastrophe…. I like to call it SnowWayI’mGoingOutsideTomorrow. Whatever you call it, whenever there is bad weather, people start praying. When I was a kid on nights like tonight, I prayed for snow days. Sometimes I even got them. But I’m not a kid anymore, and tonight it seems everyone’s praying for people on the roads, praying for people who are stranded at airports to catch a flight, praying for homeless people to stay warm, praying that there is still some bread left at Kroger…. Everybody’s praying.

Please God, I ask you again: Break the wings of all the hawks.

Please God, I ask you again: Break the wings of all the hawks.

When I was in high school, we had a bit of a controversy. I went to a small, Christian high school, and during basketball tournament time, some kids prayed that our high school’s team would win the upcoming game. We started debating whether or not that was something we should pray for, or if God even cared at all–one way or another–which team won a high school basketball game. If I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure we were even playing against a Catholic school’s team (making the theology behind things even trickier. I mean, I could understand if we were playing against one of those godless PUBLIC schools). I just didn’t feel right to me. Praying that we play our best? Sure. Praying that nobody would get hurt? I guess…. But appealing to God that he would somehow intervene in the natural world (boosts of energy, guiding shots, etc….) and miraculously do things to give our team victory just seemed to not really make sense to me. But I couldn’t quite put into words WHY it didn’t make sense.

They prayed he'd be president, and it happened. "It's a miracle!"

They prayed he’d be president, and it happened. “It’s a miracle!”

There are some people who chalk up just about everything to MIRACLES. Now, people have a lot of different thoughts as to what constitutes a “miracle.” For some, every good thing that happens is a result of God’s direct intervention (and usually for these folks, every bad thing that happens is blamed on the devil). So…. Lost my wallet, and then found it later? “It’s a miracle!” Ran into Brittney at the mall today? “It’s a miracle!” Late for work and a light tuns green right as you drive up? “It’s a miracle!” For many, a miracle is an occurrence which could only be explained by some sort of divine intervention. But depending on how you see things, this could be anything from walking on water or praying for a person who gets up out of his wheelchair, all the way to getting a new job or finding a $20 bill on the floor. But for the purposes of this blog post, let’s just say that a miracle is whenever God interacts with the natural world.

I used to be able to just quietly endure people who chalked everything up to being a miracle. I would humor someone who talked about “miraculously” finding $20 on the ground by not asking them questions like, “What about the poor dude who lost that $20?” (He must not have been praying). But lately, I’m feeling more and more compelled to speak up when I hear someone give the credit for every coincidence to the creator of the universe. Or using phrases like “God’s Plan.” And it’s not because I take any joy in trying to mess with people’s simplistic view of things–I don’t. A big part of me wants to let people keep on living in happy ignorance. But the reason I’m feeling like I need to speak up is because of what this “Everything’s a miracle” worldview says about the nature of God.

If you've never read anything by Anne Lamott before, you should. This one's good.

If you’ve never read anything by Anne Lamott before, you should. This one’s good.

This view comes from a place of wanting to believe that God is in control of everything. It deals with the idea of sovereignty, and it’s an issue I can’t seem to escape. So when someone posts a status about asking people to pray for her safety while driving on the icy roads, I start thinking, “Is God the really in control of her car’s traction? And is God waiting on my prayers to give her a safe ride home? And does God’s decision to grant her safety somehow depend on how many people reply ‘I’m praying!'” And the subtext of this way of viewing the world is that “God is in control of every little thing.” And that way of viewing the world might work for people…. Right up until she doesn’t make it home. And then we start asking questions like, “Wait…. You could have kept her car on the road, but you decided NOT to?!? Was this part of your plan? Were waiting for more prayers?!!” 

Dear God, Thank you for sending that storm away from US and toward that OTHER country.

Dear God, Thank you for sending that storm away from US and toward that OTHER country.

When the cyclone came through the Philippines, a lot of people prayed that God would “be with” the people there. And subtly, silently, what we proclaim with prayers like this is that God was not with the people of the Philippines before the disaster. Or during. Or after (unless we ask?). And somehow, we expect that, with our prayers, this God that is in control of every little thing is going to miraculously direct help to the people who need it most…. While forgetting that this picture of a God who is in control of every little thing ALSO paints a picture of a God who was in control of the path of the storm that laid waste to whole cities–Cities that are still hurting and desperate for help, but are out of our news cycle…. at least until some sort of one year anniversary comes around, and we throw up a few more prayers.

Praying for you….

Praying for you….

I used to be so sure of how prayer worked, but I’m not so sure anymore. I’m not sure about what a miracle is, or with what frequency miracles take place…. I tend to think that they are a lot more rare than I used to believe. I think that if God ever was the sort of God who was in control of every little thing, he had to limit his own power in order to give us the freedom to choose to really love him and each other. I believe God grieves with us when she doesn’t make it home. And he cries with us when cities are swept into the sea by giant storms. I believe we were meant to BE the miracles for each other. My wife told me about this homeless outreach that was happening tonight in response to the freezing temperatures, and I didn’t respond. I just kind of let it not happen…. I’m not sure why. There will be other chances, I suppose. Maybe the real miracle is when we respond to the voice of God speaking to us, telling us to DO SOMETHING TO HELP. A prayer is never going to fill a hungry person’s belly like a sandwich will. If I was sleeping outside tonight, I’d rather have have one person getting me a bed with a blanket than a million people praying I stay warm. If we’re going to spend time praying, let us pray that our prayers miraculously turn into the action of loving those who need it most.

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27 Responses to When Prayer Is Worthless–Some Thoughts On The Cold Weather

  1. Catherine says:

    I see what you are saying and I agree that action speaks louder than words. I don’t have it figured out but if it were only about what WE do, what would be the point of praying at all? Maybe there is something supernatural about prayer that helps enable us to actually ACT.
    My brother was diagnosed in 2010 with brain cancer. No cure and limited treatment options. The doctors told us he might live a couple weeks and at best a couple months. It was devastating. He was only 33 years old. I prayed like I have never prayed before. This is really an understatement. Two years later, John died. Some people might think God did not answer my prayers. Of course I prayed for healing. After reflecting on this for over a year, I still don’t have the answer or understand why but maybe it’s possible that God answered my prayers –just differently. I mean John IS healed now–just not on Earth. And we DID have TWO whole years of extra time together which no one foresaw or thought possible at the time of diagnosis. During those two years, I valued every second we had together because I didn’t know if it would be our last. It taught me time is the most precious commodity–once it’s spent it can’t ever be earned back. It taught me to have no regrets. I gained new understanding of what true strength really is. And now as I deal with the grief, I pray for comfort. Yes, I wanted the miracle where John would be healed here and I believe God could have done that. No, I don’t know why He didn’t. And no, I don’t think it’s because we didn’t pray hard enough. I don’t have the answer. I just know that along the way, God gave us memories and extra time and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.
    PS–After years of trying to have a baby, God gave my husband and me a baby boy last year that we lovingly named “John.” Interestingly, the name John means “God is gracious.”

  2. Jan toraason says:

    How can I post this on FB? Jan

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Spring Thompson says:

    I guess I might have subconsciously wondered about prayer & how it works but not really put a lot of thought to it. I’m one who thinks praying for myself & for wordly things that I want is just selfish & so i don’t do it. I pray for things like Lord keep your hands on my family today and keep them safe for another day, and like today with our frigid temps of -20 & wind chill of -50 to please be with the homeless & the animals, yes I pray for the animals too. Do I think all will be safe & live?, no because its not His will. There is a reason for everything. I believe it is already written what will be but I do however think that with prayers He will alter what is to be in His own way if its in our best interest. When my mom prays she says “if its in your will Lord”. Have I been disappointed before? Yes! And then I cry but it all makes you stronger for the next time & it goes back to faith again, not faith that your prayer will be answered your way but faith that He will be there helping you through it when you don’t get your way.

  4. Kim says:

    Wow! The end impacted me greatly.

    “A prayer is never going to fill a hungry person’s belly like a sandwich will. If I was sleeping outside tonight, I’d rather have have one person getting me a bed with a blanket than a million people praying I stay warm.”

    I have been a Christ-follower for many years and lately have been struggling with wondering why even pray – as I’ve felt “unheard.” But this, this may be the answer. If I’m truly following Christ, I have to put something into action. Maybe my prayers should be for strength and wisdom to DO the right thing for someone else. What a beautifully written reminder of what it means to be the “hands and feet” of Christ.

    Thanks for this. I really needed to read it today. 🙂

  5. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James 2:14-16
    I believe in the power of prayer and I don’t rule out miracles. I think they happen. But I think prayer also plays a role in helping US remember the needs around us – which hopefully spurs us to action when action is an option for us.
    I also think that when people know we are praying for them and thinking about them, that this in and of itself can be a comfort and help. A sense of support and community.

  6. Cassie says:

    Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury, pardon;
    where there is doubt, faith;
    where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    where there is sadness, joy;

    O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
    to be understood as to understand;
    to be loved as to love.

    -St. Francis of Assisi

  7. Tiffany says:

    I get what your saying. I actually get almost everything you say, but here are my thoughts. I pray for travel mercies etc, and many of the scenarios you mentioned. But when I do I pray for people to remember in disaster that God is with them. That for a second they have peace, etc. I mean it when I pray it, but I don’t have the mind frame that God is going to crash someone if I don’t pray. For me the prayer is more for me as an act of devotion. I have become in the last year quite the pray-er and often time I lift up praise. The act does more for me I think than the person I am praying for. But at the same time I would never pray for my team to win, say the National Championship they are playing in tonight. That seems wrong. Also a simple prayer for travel mercies etc, often times can be a “conversation starter” for me that leads into much deeper prayer….

    • E A Christofferson says:

      I agree with you Tiffany. Prayer is way more than asking God for the umpth to get up and do something.
      While Christians have been sorely lacking in the ” do” department, they have also gotten themselves in a heap of trouble by doing without praying first. It is loving our neighbor to pray for them and it is love to do for them. Many times I can’t help them but I can always pray for them.

  8. Esther Green says:

    This is exactly how I’ve always felt. People start prayer chains for EVERYTHING!! I used to pray for stuff but then when it didn’t happen, I thought there must not be a God. I remember when the people were playing Big Brother and they kept praying and saying they were going to win because they had God on their side. It actually made me physically sick. All I know is that if I don’t find another way to look at prayer, I will continue to be an atheist. I’ve come to the conclusion that prayer is not for God, it is more for us.

  9. Mel says:

    I needed this today

  10. Ana says:

    Prayer, like love, is a lifestyle, a set of behaviors. How else could we “pray unceasingly?”

  11. Regina McIlrath says:

    Prayer, for me, is Listening and then acting, or not, according to what I feel the message was. No, I’m not talking about hearing voices, but being touched to act out love for our fellow human beings. When we hear about tragedy or wonderful happenings, are we moved to act? That movement of spirit within us is prayer and when we respond in all our thoughts, words and deeds, we are praying unceasingly. We can ask God to help people to (help) live in His/Her will and those living and responding in prayer will be put into the lives of the people who need them. That may be a miracle or not. Does it matter? Asking God to bless people with what they need at any given moment, to me, is extending the love and a kindness to show emotional support when action is not possible.

  12. Jennifer says:

    God is in control of everything. He does care about the little things — even the things that seem insignificant. He is the creator of the universe and because of that, I’m okay with not understanding his ways.

    • Esther Green says:

      Wow Jennifer, I wish I could just have blind faith and never ask why. But I’ve been asking why since I came out the womb. I question everything and things just need to make a little sense to me. I’ve never been able to just accept what people tell me. I’m skeptical of everything and everyone.

  13. Kath says:

    Has it occurred to any of you that maybe God doesn’t answer all your prayers… because there isn’t a God? When good things happen you give all the credit to God, and when things don’t go your way, you say it wasn’t God’s will. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because there’s no one up there listening. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I used to be a devout Christian, but in my later years I’ve come to the conclusion that God is just a crutch for people who need to feel that there is someone in control of everything. Wouldn’t the earth be a much better place if only we looked to ourselves to make the changes we want to see in the world?

    • Catherine says:

      Yes, I’ve wondered if God is real. It’s hard not to wonder that when you see someone you love dying in front of your eyes. I’m very skeptical about people who claim that something is God’s will, etc. When my brother was dying of brain cancer (which by the way, steals your body of each function one motor skill at a time) a Chrisitan gave me a book to read where the author claimed that he believed cancer is from God. He based part of his opinion on personal experience but it still made me angry and I was very hurt. The author had a very curable type of cancer. He didn’t endure the agony of extensive treatment. Let’s be real here: chemo and radiation can make a person wonder if they’d really rather just die. So here is this man who thinks he understands what it’s like to endure cancer and wrote something that he probably made a ton of money on. Not only does he say cancer is a blessing but he goes so far to say that cancer comes from God. All I wanted to do was vomit and burn the book. I’m sure the person who gave it to me had good intentions or maybe they didn’t read it before giving it to me. I did some research on the author. Apparently, he’s very famous in the Christian community but has no credibility with me at all. I just can’t possibly believe or accept that cancer comes from God.
      I guess I need a crutch because I want to believe something bigger than myself is in control. I’ve experienced enough pain in my life that I’m taking the chance that God is there. I figure I don’t have anything to lose by believing this but have everything to gain. I want to use my life in a good way to help others. I’m a public school teacher and have dedicated my life through this career to helping students reach their highest potential. I think my belief in God, prayer and meditation, empowers me to do a better job than I’d be doing if I was trying to be a positive influence on my own. Literally the best prayer I say sometimes is just three words: God help me. At the end of my life, if I’m wrong, I’m no worse off than if I had tried to do everything on my own.

  14. “…let’s just say that a miracle is whenever God interacts with the natural world.” This is exactly right, and it is eternally happening always. Creation is a miracle, love is a miracle, a tree is a miracle, eyeballs are miracles. We do not have a God who is a “puppet master” pulling all the strings but God does love us and is actively involved in everyone’s life, always, regardless of whether or not they know it or believe it. So you’re right to say, everything is a miracle. I will say that we should offer prayers of petition because Jesus did and does and when we do they should be like Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

  15. Arlene Claxton says:

    I feel as if you read my mind but you have the ability to put it into words. Thank you.

  16. debemac1779 says:

    I think you and I share the same brain. Loved the article. Love how you have a way with words.

  17. Greg says:

    Sheep help you find a warm bed… Goats pray you find one.

  18. Figured out this silliness in the 2nd grade. Blown away by the otherwise ‘wise’ people in my life who ignored this obvious conundrum, and the hypocrisy surrounding the ‘preference of prayer’. When does any form of logic come into the picture? I have always practiced what I call ‘wishing one well’. Period.

  19. Pixie Girl says:

    Beautiful. I’ve spent a lot of time recently pondering God’s presence in my life, and the power of prayer, and, well, it’s really not an easy topic. I tend to think that I don’t see the whole picture so what happens in my life is only part of the mosaic that is human existence. It taught me humility.

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