God’s Grace Is At Work Despite This

My quick and dirty Lutheran Response to the Daily News headline “God Isn’t Fixing This” and its condemnation of prayer as useless platitudes.

The profoundness of misunderstanding that has to go on for such a headline to run is near unapproachable. This misunderstands God, Prayer, Action, and the whys and hows of all three. First about prayer: the idea that prayer is somehow divorced from action is at stake here. Prayer is labeled as “platitudes” and it is implied that real action is necessary instead. But if prayer is truly platitudes and some sort of mystical thing divorced from reality, I would never do it. In fact, that would mean I have never prayed ever in my life. But this is not prayer.

It is not true that prayer does not build bridges, because the very act of building a bridge IS a prayer. Prayer is not about getting God to fix things, or letting ourselves off the hook for the bad things that go on around us. Instead, prayer is an active response to the needs and concerns of the world around us. Prayer is not a transactional interaction. It is not “I say these words, and God fixes things for me.” Prayer is about meeting our needs and our neighbor’s needs, and how God promises to stand alongside us in our suffering. Prayer is about presence and promise, not about platitudes and transactions. To paraphrase Luther in his letter to his barber about prayer: “The person who does a hard day’s work and prays, prays twice.” The hard day’s work is as much a prayer as being present with one another in word and mind. Prayer is connective and active by its nature. So if those people were truly praying for the families of the victims, they would also be acting to stop such violence. Now, those people may actually be lazy louts who are not doing but are indeed simply saying they are praying while they are doing nothing. I am not disputing here people’s ability to be inconsistent lazy swine. I do not doubt that in the slightest. But what I am disputing is the idea that prayer is an ineffective and inappropriate response.

It WOULD be good if those people were praying, because then they would be doing. Prayer changes people. It turns them away from their lazy swine natures and makes them to do good. So in fact, it is more prayer that is needed here and not less. For prayer makes action, presence, and connection. It is true that we need less platitudes and more doing, but prayer is not platitudes, and prayer is not the problem- it is the answer. If I am to take those people on their word that they are praying, then I am also to expect that they are enacting laws and making changes.

Now second, let us take up the notion that “God will not fix this.” This again assumes God is some ghost apart from the machine. Just as if prayer were something not born out of reality and deep human need, so this makes the mistake thinking that God is some third other thing that isn’t at all concerned about reality. Fixing this, together, with laws and doing the hard work of peace-mongering where fear would rather reign…what could that be other than God’s work? We surely aren’t capable enough to do it on our own. Look how great we’re doing being lazy pigs when we look at our own abilities and think about how inadequate we are! It is the fear of Godless people that makes them to take up more guns for their feelings of false security. We need more God, more prayer, not less.

I do not expect God to be some wizard in the sky with a magic wand that will make everything to be alright. If that is what you think God is, then yes, that God will not fix this. But no one would believe in such a God! Look at how much shit goes on. If God were such a wizard, we would not have the world that we have. But a God who is a voice of light and peace, that is DRIVEN to be in the wilderness, the places where we are broken. A God who is broken where we are broken, a God who is present. A God who walks with us, that is a God worth believing in. That God DOES things, but not in the “fixed it” way of a magic wand, nor often in the way one might want or expect. It is not magic. It is practical. How does the God I believe in do things? God does them despite how bad things are. By the Grace of God, People are at work. People are changed, and working for change. People love one another despite everything awful we have done. People are working hard, praying, and making a difference. That is what God at work looks like. It looks like us, doing positive things despite all odds, because God has done good things for us. If lazy swine people can end up with one ounce of love and good nature in their hearts, then my God has done something. And my God continues to do so every day. That is what I believe in: positive change, presence and concern for weakness. Love in the last place you would reasonably look to find it: amidst death and destruction. That is God at work.

Without that kind of positive change of heart, we would never ever stop gun violence. Without people turning to love and connection instead of fear and hate, we will not get one iota of peace. So if I were to write the headline I would say: “If this is to be fixed at all, we surely need the help of God.” Or better, “By God’s grace alone will this ever get any better.” Who else will turn us away from our swine nature? At risk of repeating myself: we get the job done SO WELL on our own. It is loneliness, fear, and reliance on ourselves that has gotten us into this mess. Truly, we need God and prayer. For without them, nothing happens at all but what we already have: hate, anger, and violence.

Finally, a word about action. The one thing further that this headline misunderstands, is how action works. Action rarely works well from being prescribed. Just look at how many of the Ten Commandments we all daily keep. (I’ll give you a hint: none of us keep a single one of them as we ought.) If you make a rule that says “you must do this!” most surely someone will break that rule just out of spite for your having made it. This headline prescribes action. It makes action the necessary most primary thing, and that is the surest way I know to encourage people to NOT act. People do not work because they want to change. If that were true, New Year’s resolutions would have a 100% success rate. We think, people want to change, and so they would then naturally work for it throughout the year. But that isn’t how it works! Change happens, it is not worked up to. True action, true work, comes BECAUSE we are changed. Not because we worked for it. Like when the love of your life kisses you for the first time on the cheek, and now nothing is ever the same, you will work miracles to make that person happy! We do so much more work because we are in love than we ever do when we are out of it. In fact, being out of love leads to so much inactivity it is downright mopey. See how much work happens because of change and how little change happens because of work. Change, like prayer, is about being, presence, and promise. Not about transactions, labour, and accomplishment. What the Ten Commandments and all of this should show us, is how much we need God, not how much God or corrupt lazy politicians are in need of “fixing things.”

Granted, things I do have an effect on the world. I do the hard work of pressing a switch, and now the world is changed because the light is on. I am not arguing that change does not ever result from work. But instead, my argument is about why and how change and work happen, not about where they may occur. We do not, on the whole, work because of work. We work because of change. The strongest reason I flip the light switch is not for flipping the light switch. It is a reaction to the change in light, and a desire to change it back to a brighter setting. So it is with the Gospel, we do good works because we have been changed-freed by the Gospel. We do not do good works to get freed.

Therefore, just as much as prayer must include action, it is not the action that is important as much as the change God makes through it. In Luther’s same letter to his barber about prayer he says:

“One must see to it, however, that we do not gradually lose the habit of true prayer and begin to imagine that a great many works are necessary for our salvation and that doing them is ultimately better than prayer, and then interpret them to be necessary when they are not. In the end, as a result, we will become lax and lazy, cold tired, and weary of prayer. For the devil, all around us, is not lazy or lax, and our flesh is still all too alive and ready to sin and inclined against the spirit of prayer.”

That is to say, it is not our working which makes prayer worthwhile, but the presence and promises of God, and what God does through prayer in us. Even if you don’t pray. Even if you do nothing. I don’t remember who said it, but it’s true: “God is bigger than our ability to mess up.” God works despite, in, through and with our failures. And it is that which makes all the change in the world.

But don’t take my word for it, you can read Luther’s Letter to his barber here.