“He regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.” - Psalm 102:17
In the wake of the school shooting that took place yesterday in Parkland, FL I would like to offer some thoughts on prayer as well as ponder some of the deeper reasons behind the “why?” that so many are asking at this time.
First, prayer. Lately the fashionable reaction to Christians or even deists who offer prayers for the families and victims of horrible events is mockery. Social media political and philosophical couch warriors are never wanting for words when someone states that they are praying. The gist of their mockery is that prayer essentially does nothing. In our meme culture this has been represented recently by portraying King Théoden of Rohan (in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) receiving the news that “Gondor calls for aid” to which he imaginarily replies with “My thoughts and prayers are with Gondor. Sending positive energy their way.” This popular sentiment and meme also introduce another disturbing element, namely that our thoughts are roughly equivalent to that of prayers.
To those who don’t believe that God exists, or more accurately, have worked to suppress the knowledge of His existence (cf. Rom. 1:18; Ps. 14:1), they may derive some comfort from the idea that others are thinking about them in the midst of a trial. However, our thoughts do exactly nothing. This is a phrase that I have personally grown weary of hearing, especially from Christians who profess to believe not only that God exists, but also that the Bible is His inspired Word. This is nothing more than mysticism, with the idea that we can somehow connect with the galactic energy of the universe and channel our thoughts along some pathway to someone else. Our thoughts do nothing.
Prayer, on the other hand, is different. Prayer really does have the ability to affect change. This process is mysterious even to the most learned Bible scholar. Bypassing most of surrounding arguments the simple fact of the matter is that Christians are commanded to pray. “I desire then that in every place the men should pray” (1 Tim. 2:8). This was a foundational element of the corporate worship of the early Church (Acts 2:42). The disciples of Jesus saw Him modeling prayer so often that they asked Him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Paul commanded it of the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:17). Whatever the mysterious relationship is between our prayers and an omniscient God who has seen the beginning from the end and known every day before one came to be (cf. Ps. 139:16), the simple fact is that God commands us to pray and somehow, when our heart is delighting in God (Ps. 37:4), when we ask, God delights to respond (cf. Mt. 7:7).
Notice the verse at the top of this post: “He regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer” (Ps. 102:17). This one is especially applicable in light of yesterday’s tragic events. Why? Because God has said that those who call out to Him in destitution He will take note of and answer. What’s more, specifically for those grieving we have more promises: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). Today, from a national standpoint, can there be anyone more brokenhearted and crushed in spirit than the parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, and friends of those so tragically slain? Why do we pray? We pray because God has said that we should and that He alone has the ability to minister to their souls in a way that none other can. Again, the skeptic would ask – “why?”
As a firm believer in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, that it is the very record of God Himself that He chose to give to the world, I find in the Bible that God to whom I am commanded to pray has revealed Himself as the Eternal (without beginning or end) Creator (the ultimate cause) of all that is (cf. Jn. 1:3). He truly is powerful – the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16). Unlike our thoughts which are powerless, He knows all – even our thoughts (Ps. 139:1-4ff)! And when we direct our thoughts and words directly to Him (not to others) this is called prayer and in this act, there is none more powerful to hear and answer! God alone can give true peace in the midst of tragedy. God alone can give eternal hope. To those who died in the knowledge of the Gospel, or good news of Jesus Christ, they were immediately ushered into the joy of the Lord (Mt. 25:21ff.) and for them, it was truly great gain (Phil. 1:21). For those who do not have this knowledge, there is nothing better than that they be exposed to the eternal Good News through this so that no matter what other pain they may suffer in this life, they can know that in the life to follow, there will be no more pain, no more death, no more tears, no more mourning (Rev. 21:4)! That is the power and hope of prayer, and is why we pray!
Back to that meme for a moment. Not only is there mockery of prayer (we already addressed the vacuity of thoughts), but also implied is the need for real action, which is exactly what was being called for by Gondor. May we take a moment to be precise? When applied to a real-world situation, there are important nuances to be made here. Apples to apples, this would be akin to responding to the attack on Pearl Harbor with prayer only. That was truly an act of war that required an immediate and swift military reaction. To be sure, prayers were offered up in the wake of the loss for life and no doubt had profound effect. However, to say that no prayers should be made in light of yesterday’s shooting is simply ignorant and is not truthful with the facts. That act, nor similar ones which preceded it, was not an act of war. Perhaps action is required, but not with the same haste as Pearl Harbor. In this case, in the seconds and minutes and hours and days afterward, prayer is the best action that can be taken by true believers.
As I compose this, Senator Marco Rubio (Republican, FL) was speaking on the Senate floor addressing this. Not long before, President Trump issued some remarks on it as well. Much of the nation is calling for stricter rules, tighter regulations, etc., saying that if only those had been in place, this could have been prevented. I would like to ponder this for just a moment and offer a different perspective from my viewpoint as a Christian.
Let me start with a small vignette. I grew up in Central Oregon and went to high school in the 1990’s. I actually graduated high school a scant few weeks after the tragic Columbine High School shooting. Maybe not as readily recalled by those outside of Oregon was another school shooting which took place the year before, May 21, 1998 in Springfield, OR at the hands of Kip Kinkel, who had savagely murdered his parents before going to the school and killing two more. Up to this point school shootings were not a familiar national category for the average household. The events in Springfield shook us up quite a bit, but we all figured that Kinkel was pretty deranged. In fact, Central Oregon was sort of a cowboy kind of place with ranches all around in the high desert. People of all persuasions enjoyed gun sports whether for hunting or merely marksmanship. It may be that my class was one of the very last to ever recall driving to school as a teenager and seeing pickup trucks with guns in gun racks right next to us as we parked, or our friends showing us their .30-06 that they were going to shoot later that day just prior to going in for class. This was every-day stuff, nothing out of the ordinary. Chances are, at the high school I attended, if someone came in and started shooting, dozens of students and teachers would have run to their trucks and stopped him long before the police arrived. So what changed?
A quick search shows that school shootings have actually been going on for a long time. The first occurred in 1840(!) And there have been school shootings in every single decade since then. Every. Single. One. Equally fascinating to note is when they started to rise: the 1970’s. From that point on the number has never gone down. Television coverage and major media outlets have been giving them lots of coverage from about the time of Kip Kinkel forward. This led to cries of tighter legislation and continued debate over the topic of guns themselves that has continued nearly unabated since 1999. Let’s set that debate aside, as well as talk of the media’s coverage (although I would love to talk about that too), and focus instead on the 1970’s. What happened in that decade that caused such an uptick in violent crime? Why would school shootings nearly double from the decade prior? Let me propose to you that it was in the 1970’s that our country experienced a fundamental philosophical shift. Philosophic thought divides the history of the world into three categories: Pre-modern; Modern; and Postmodern. The Pre-modern age is basically anything prior to the 16th Century, or around the time of the Renaissance. The Modern age runs from the Renaissance through to about the 1950-60’s. There are differing opinions as to when precisely it ended and the postmodern age began. The history, development, and characteristics of each of these periods are also a subject for a different day, however let us zero in on the birth of what is known as postmodernity – it occurred right around the time of the uptick in public school violence (among other distinguishing events). Is this a fantastic coincidence, or are there characteristics of postmodern thought that might contribute to these types of events?
I will argue for the latter option. Millard Erickson, in his book The Postmodern World, gives us several characteristics of this age.
The sum of these characteristics is that there is no such thing as right or wrong. You may think something is right and may even have an argument for it, but if I feel differently than you, then your logic doesn’t matter. You may value life, but I don’t – so what are you going to do about it? Does any of this sound familiar? He illustrates this trend not only through discussion of philosophers and universities, but also through popular television shows. Back in the days of the early transition, shows on the tube actually taught morals and truths. Fast-forward to a purely postmodern show that typified the 1990’s, Seinfeld, and it was “a program about nothing. Yet actually, by not being about any subject, having no moral, it is itself telling a story about the world. There is no objective right or wrong.”
When the modern world stepped into post-modernity and cast off truth, morals, and values and replaced them with feelings, it was the beginning of the end. Now, say the purveyors of higher education, no one can tell you that you are wrong; no one can impose their values on you or morals. What kept violent crime at bay, at least to some degree? Probably the idea that there is inherent value in human life. We certainly cannot argue that this is the ultimate solution, but at least it is a step in the right direction. Clearly crime and murder have been ongoing since the fall of man (see Gen. 4:8ff) and the issue is with sin. But, even using terminology such as “sin” belies my belief in truth. God is the “God of truth” (Isaiah 65:16), and those that would worship Him must worship Him according to truth (Jn. 4:24). You see, God has given us an absolute standard of truth, values, and morality in the Bible, and when the teachers of our day profess to be wise apart from the Wisdom of God, then they are in fact displaying their foolishness (Rom. 1:22).
The hordes are already crying for more rules and legislation to be passed, but as I see it, if we want to see these sorts of things decline, a good starting point would be to bring back the notion of truth to the world, along with true, objective values, and morals. It would be even better if people would submit themselves to the Gospel, but acknowledging truth would be a good start.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_shootings_in_the_United_States, accessed February 15, 2018.
Not counting an Indian-related shooting in the 18th century. ibid.
Without going completely off-topic, let me encourage you to read How to Watch TV News by Neil Postman, followed quickly with Amusing Ourselves to Death by the same author. You’ll never look at any form of media quite the same way. And you shouldn’t.
Millard Erickson, The Postmodern World (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL: 2002), 13.