Is Prayer Worthwhile? Another Mass Shooting Raises Questions About God, Prayer, and Faith

On Sunday morning, November 5, Devin Patrick Kelley stormed into First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas and committed the worst mass shooting in that state’s history. As of the time of this writing, the death toll stands at 26, including the gunman’s grandmother-in-law and several children. Those children included the pastor’s teenage daughter as well an 18-month old girl. The tragedy has decimated the small congregation. As the pastor’s wife told the media: “Now most of our church family is gone.”

It of course didn’t take long for people to jump on social media to vent their outrage and, in some cases, politicize the tragedy. In what has become an almost standard response, secular progressives angrily denounced expressions of sympathy from people they see as soft on or resistant to gun control.

When President Trump expressed his sympathy, hundreds of critics denounced him, including Keith Olbermann who tweeted: “‘Thoughts and prayers’ again, @realDonaldTrump, idiot? These people were in CHURCH. They WERE praying.”

Comedian and actor Michael Ian Black again called the National Rifle Association a “terrorist organization” as if the NRA was deliberately training and encouraging mass murderers. This, despite the fact that the heroic church neighbor who shot the gunman was a legal gun owner and a member of the NRA. Black’s statement, however, is reflective of many on the left who see advocates for gun rights as not simply wrong, but evil.

Actor Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame mocked House Speaker Paul Ryan when the latter called on people to pray for the victims. Wheaton angrily tweeted: “The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of sh$^.” (Censorship mine)

His former co-star Marina Sirtis (aka Counselor Troi on Star Trek: TNG) likewise expressed her frustration: “To all those asking for thoughts and prayers for the victims in #churchshooting , it seems that your direct line to God is not working.”

Anyone observing this increasingly typical liberal/progressive/leftist response to mass shootings can see where it’s going. It’s not enough to disagree with gun rights proponents. We must vilify them and blame them for every single mass shooting. Indeed, even moderates on gun issues are attacked for not being strong enough. And what’s more, people of faith are now being attacked. Innocent and well-intentioned expressions of sympathy and calls for “thoughts and prayers” are being flung back in the faces of those making such calls.

Understandably, people of faith are on the defensive. Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene, writing for The Federalist, insists that God was “answering prayers” from the Texas victims. Many liberals, upon reading his article (now making the rounds on social media) have gone apoplectic. Kurt Eichenwald simply tweeted “I have no words” in response. Though Fiene’s headline may lend itself to unfortunate inferences, it’s hard to argue with the following portion of Fiene’s article:

“People of goodwill can certainly disagree over the merits of gun control legislation, just as we can disagree over how long we should wait after a tragedy to discuss its political ramifications. However, we should all recognize that pointing to a couple dozen warm corpses and saying, ‘Fat lot of good your Jesus-begging did you’ is an act of profound ugliness.”

It’s understandable that many people are searching for an appropriate response to such a terrible tragedy — a tragedy that’s becoming all-too-common in America. But somehow, I fail to see how calling the President of the United States an “idiot,” the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives a “worthless sack of sh#^”, and publicly denouncing prayer as “useless” are responses that fall into the category marked “appropriate.”

As I wrote in a previous article, I understand that atheists and agnostics will consider prayer ineffective and hollow. But if that’s you, it’s not asking a lot for you to be polite to those with whom you disagree. If God isn’t real, then it doesn’t hurt you to have someone pray for you – or to have someone pray for others – or for someone to encourage people to pray for one another. None of that hurts you. If you’re an atheist or an agnostic or a disgruntled person who has wandered from his or her faith, let people of faith be in peace. Let them pray, ask others to pray, and live their lives according to their religious beliefs. And you can go about your business in peace. That is tolerance. To do otherwise is bigotry….on your part.

Of course, I am not an atheist. I believe in the power of prayer, because I believe in God. And I believe our nation needs prayer now more than ever. If you disagree, that is your right. But let us disagree in peace. As for me, I will keep praying…in the good times and the bad….perhaps especially in the bad. I like what Max Lucado once wrote: “Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.”

Many of those attacking prayer simply don’t understand what prayer is all about. Before you attack a religion, it’s helpful if you understand that religion. While there are many confused, mistaken, and corrupt Christians out there, Christianity – at its core – is NOT about some formulaic “faith” that says if you pray hard enough, you’ll get everything you want and nothing bad will happen to you. On the contrary, God’s people often suffer. The Bible makes it clear that people, including people of faith, will suffer in this life. According to the Bible, the earth is fallen and “cursed,” and everyone (and that means everyone) living on earth is a sinner. And sinners don’t just affect their own lives. They affect the lives of others.

God sometimes intervenes (through providentially working behind-the-scenes or, in some cases, outright miracles) in the affairs of this life, but there is no formula that guarantees He will do so according to our will or our timing. Tragedies will happen. Loved ones will die. And so will we. That is the way of things.

In this life.

This doesn’t mean we throw up on our hands and yield to some depressing fatalistic mindset of hopelessness. It just means that we need to set our expectations according to truth and reality, and not according to our wishes or desires.

A good rule to keep in mind comes from the great medieval theologian Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God, work as though everything depended on you.”

So what about that “work” part? What should we be doing while we are praying?

Like many Americans, I’m all for putting our laws on the table to see what changes can be made to help prevent such mass shootings in the future. And that means all our laws, not just our gun laws. For example, let’s also look at the overall mental health situation in our country, and let’s see if some changes in our mental health laws and practices might help prevent such tragedies. How about education? Could we do more to teach constructive ways to manage anger, develop critical thinking skills, value human life, and so forth? Let’s look at all our laws. Nothing should be off limits.

Let’s also look at the condition of the American family as well as the overall moral condition of our society.

What has happened in America over the last few decades that has made acts of evil like this more common? When my late father attended Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, he was a member of the rifle club. They met a couple times each week and did target practice — at school! And on rifle club days, the kids in the club brought their rifles (with ammunition) to school! How many shootings were there at Wakefield during this time?

Zero

Oh, and what was the case at my father’s high school was common throughout America at the time. During hunting season, for example, in many schools, kids brought their guns with them to school after having hunted in the morning.

Few will dispute that Americans had fewer gun laws to contend with in the 1950s and before. And much easier access to guns. And, yet, comparatively speaking, there was much less gun violence.

Why?

Shouldn’t we ask that question?

In asking these questions, I’m aware that the population has increased and gun technology has improved. I get that. But are those two factors the only reasons why we have more gun violence today? If we look specifically at mass shootings, public places were less secure in 1950s America (and before) than they are today. People were much, much less worried about such things – not that they didn’t happen. But such incidents were infrequent enough that they didn’t affect the day-to-day lives of the American people.

I want to see mass shootings end in the United States. I want to see them stop. I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and do my part to make that happen, but let’s not be so naive as to think that making a few adjustments in our gun laws will accomplish that. Yes, we should look at all our laws to see if we can tighten some things up and make improvements, but tunnel vision on gun laws won’t solve this problem. To believe otherwise is naive. Let’s get real. And let’s put EVERYTHING on the table! And as we’re doing that, let’s also be in prayer for the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas. And for our country overall. And let’s remember…

Hating and vilifying our fellow citizens won’t accomplish anything. If anything, it will just make things worse.