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Once more, with feeling: Prayer doesn’t replace action

It keeps coming up, so I’m going to keep answering.

In my recent post #DontPray is trending. Do they have a point?, I said that it’s shameful to merely pray in the face of horrible crimes, rather than asking ourselves what we can do — whether it’s working directly on the actual problem, or working to sanctify our own families and our own souls, so that horrors may be overcome by good.

A reader calling himself “Charles, an Atheist,” left this response:

Don’t pray. Two hands working do more than a thousand clasped in prayer. Praying does more harm than good. Praying gives people a false sense of accomplishment: they’ve done nothing, but felt like they made a difference. Many people forgo actually helping in times of crisis or tragedy, because they believe that they’re doing their personal share by praying. So they contribute less than if they contributed in material ways. So if you really do want to solve the world’s woes, or to help a good cause, then do something with your hands, or donate resources.  Peace, friends.

I was struck by his courteous tone, and his obvious desire to do good in the world. Like Charles, I have met people who feel that praying (or writing blog posts, or calling in to radio shows, or Tweeting with self-righteous hashtags) is all they’re required to do to help their fellow man, and they feel proud of themselves for saying the correct words and then going about their business as if they’ve accomplished something. This kind of empty gesture does replace action, and it’s nothing to be proud of.

That’s why I write about this topic so often: I want to remind religious people that if we’re able to act, then we’re required to act. Faith without works is dead. Works take many different forms, but unless we’re contemplative religious, we may not simply pray and call it a day.

Also, I want to remind non-religious people that some prayer is private. A good many of the world’s most effective humanitarian workers do pray before, during, and after they work; but they follow the Lord’s explicit command to do so privately, behind closed doors, because it’s a true conversation, and not done for show. So if you see someone who is active and effective, he may also pray fervently, without anyone knowing it.

Regardless of whether anyone knows you’re praying or not, what is the primary purpose of prayer? It is to meet God, to speak to Him and to listen to Him while we living our lives. In prayer, we turn our lives over to God, and we ask for His guidance, strength, courage, and wisdom when we think, speak, and act. Prayer, action. They go together.

My morning prayer is from the Psalms (and, for what it’s worth, I’m locked in my private room as I write this, okay, heavenly Father?):

A clean heart create for me, o God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit renew within me.

No matter what comes next, this covers it. As I pray this prayer in the morning, I often have a very clear sensation of strapping on armor, getting my marching orders for the day, and preparing my heart to be ready, open, and resolved to carry out whatever it is I need to do, whether I want to or not. This prayer covers the predictable things, which I’ve been training for and have specific orders about, and the unpredictable ones, which I might be winging it.

Sometimes, the get-ready prayer is stirring and encouraging, and I’m raring to go:

Sometimes it’s a little darker, and I can’t see how it all will end. How did it come to this? All I can hope for is to be on the right side, with the right heart and the right intentions before the enemy is met:

Okay, maybe even something like this

(although when I end a prayer with “Groovy,” I’m usually asking for some divine comeuppance).

Prayer doesn’t excuse me from action. If anything, praying a “get ready” morning prayer like the Psalm above makes much harder for me to ditch my duties to other people, because I’ve made it official that I’m making plans, and not just drifting along. You can’t pray a prayer like this and then claim you had no idea that a follow-up was required.

Of course, there are other kinds of prayer. There are prayers with no obvious action involved: prayers for mercy, prayers of gratitude and joy, prayers for forgiveness, prayers of anger and grief, and sometimes prayers of bafflement, when you have absolutely no hope of doing anything useful yourself, and the only thing that’s left is prayer, so you do it because it couldn’t hurt.

As I’ve said before:

Prayer is like deciding to use both hands to tie your shoe. It’s like taking off your sunglasses when you’re looking at sculpture by Bernini. It’s like filling your pen with deep, black ink. It’s like remembering a joke you heard when you were a child, and finally getting it.  It’s like adding the catalyst that changes everything.  It’s like telling your beloved what’s really on your mind, and being delighted to realize that your beloved already knows. It is the conversation that happens before, during, and after everything great and small that we do. Prayer doesn’t make things happen. Prayer makes things possible.

And of course there will always be phonies: those who put on armor, take a picture of themselves for Instagram, and then shamble down to the basement to play World of Warcraft the rest of the day. Humans gonna human. It’s lame and useless to pray and then refuse to act, just like it’s lame and useless to get a “namaste” tattoo or you attach a “nomorewar” hashtag to everything you say. Big deal, who cares? Talk is cheap, whether you’re talking to God or Reddit. Let’s see some action.

Christians really ought to know better. So let’s be sure that our prayer and our action go hand in hand. People who pray are people who act — or at least, they should be.

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