Does Prayer Do Any Good?

Helping Your People Cope with Crisis

There was another shooting this week. Our souls ached as the reports trickled in. How many dead? How many wounded? What was the motive? As the news cycle began spinning, we gathered the grisly details.

Around the world, people expressed their condolences to the grieving families. Pundits explored the meaning of this latest tragedy. Politicians on the right and left pressed their agendas. The Internet was strewn with prayers.

We’re almost getting used to all that, except this time there was a strange backlash. “Don’t just pray; do something!” That was the general tenor of these responses. Prayer was characterized as a weak, passive reaction to the crisis.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The people you lead might be wondering what to make of all this. So it might be a good time to dig into Scripture and learn more about the stunning power of prayer.

“The prayer of a good person has a powerful effect,” the Bible says (James 5:16b). Go beyond the proof-text and grab what James is saying. Is it our own goodness that makes things happen? No, that can’t be. A verse earlier, James urges us to confess our sins. The power of prayer surely comes from a redemptive relationship with a righteous God.

Dive deeper into that relationship with the marvelous prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21. The apostle prays “that Christ will make his home in your hearts through faith” and then offers a benediction “to him who by means of his power working in us is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for, or even think of.”

“We have courage in God’s presence,” writes another apostle, “because we are sure that he hears us if we ask him for anything that is according to his will” (1 John 5:14).

Prayer is not a magic incantation that manipulates reality to fit our desires. Some Scriptures sound a bit like that, but let’s try to zoom out and get the full biblical teaching on the matter. Prayer is consistently presented as a personal interaction with our powerful God. Consider the brilliant tautology of Psalm 37:4: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (NIV). It’s less about how we can get what we want, and more about our delight in God’s desires.

We find ourselves changing in the act of prayer. Anxiety turns to peace (Philippians 4:6–7). As we beg for divine forgiveness, we’re challenged to forgive others (Luke 11:4). When we ask for God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), we are implicitly volunteering to be part of those events. Let me bring your kingdom to my community. Let me do your will in my world.

And that brings us back to the demand, “Don’t just pray; do something!” It’s half right. It completely misses the overwhelming impact of calling on God. Prayer is no cop-out. If the people who offer their prayers in a time of crisis are actually connecting with the Creator and begging for help, they are tapping into the greatest power there is. God can comfort those who have suffered loss. God can soften the hearts of grudge-holders. God can bring peace to conflict. And God can act in other restorative ways we can’t even imagine.

But we must also be ready to let prayer change us and motivate us. How can we bring God’s kingdom to earth? What can we do to fall in line with the divine will? How can we help the hurting? How can we protect our neighbors? How can we offer support, comfort, forgiveness and hope to those who need it most? How can we truly love others?

Isaiah 58 issues a similar challenge. It is written to people who are praying and fasting, but also quarreling and fighting and oppressing the poor. The prophet says God has a better way to practice religion. “Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear …” (v. 7). This is the kind of “fasting” God wants. People need to put aside oppression and injustice, and then, God promises, “when you pray I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond” (v. 9).

So, yes, please pray—pray a lot—for the victims of the crisis. Pray for the peace of the city where this happened. Pray for transformed lives, for wisdom and courage, for a willingness to release bitterness and seek reconciliation. Pray for the unimaginable ways that God might redeem this situation. And also get ready to be part of God’s response.

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is a free-lance writer and former Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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