Frustration and anger are inevitable when we are confronted by the horrors of a tragedy as overwhelming as a school shooting. As parents and grandparents, when we hear “Sandy Hook Elementary” or “Columbine” we are immediately flooded with images of pain and suffering in places where it is not supposed to happen. We expect, and rightfully so, that schools should be a safe haven for kids; a place of refuge from society’s social ills. At a very minimum, we expect our children to be physically safe when they are in school. That’s part of the reason why school shootings provoke the strong reactions we are seeing.
It is also true that when we are frustrated and angry we often lash out at anyone or anything within reach, often unjustifiably so. While we cannot be too harsh in our judgment of everything that is said in the aftermath of such a tragedy (especially what is expressed by those most deeply affected by it) some things cannot be altogether ignored.
Much to the chagrin of the community of faith, several “shots” were fired at prayer in the days that followed the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland Florida. Some on social media expressed strong anti-prayer sentiments with expressions like, “we don’t need your prayers” or “prayers can’t fix this,” often with a few expletives added for emphasis. Then along come those with an ax to grind and they too take their shot at prayer. They seem to show up at every tragedy to put their two cents in. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-known atheist astrophysicist, is a good example. Following the tragedy, he tweeted, “Evidence collected over many years, obtained from many locations, indicates that the power of Prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing school children.” Sadly, the tweet shows almost half a million likes and almost 170,000 shares — and numbers will probably be higher by the time you read this.
In dealing with these attacks, there are three things that are worth keeping in focus. First, the majority of the anti-prayer comments were less about prayer and more about a call to action. Second, treating the symptoms can only get us so far, unless we attack the ailment, the symptoms will come back, over-and-over again. The heart of the problem is a heart problem. Finally, prayer is a powerful and effective tool that is often misunderstood.
A CALL TO ACTION
The sentiment behind these tweets and posts is one of frustration. Frustration provoked by a sense that not enough is being done to prevent events like this from happening. While it is unrealistic to think that any set of actions can lead to a complete “fix” where something like this can never happen again, we must seek to do whatever we can to stop as much of it as possible. We must seek God’s wisdom and guidance, because there are no easy answers. It may be a matter of increasing school security along with other measures to make it more difficult for kids to pull off an attack like this. I’m not sure what the answer is, but we cannot ignore these tragedies and think that well wishes will suffice. We cannot stand by and do nothing! If just one school shooting is avoided by making necessary changes, then it will be well worth the effort.
THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM
But laws and regulations are not enough. Passing all the laws in the world will not keep someone from carrying out an attack like this. The sooner we realize, as a society, that laws have no power over the desires of the heart, the sooner we will begin to focus on the real problem behind these tragic events. Before the first shots are fired, before any gun is even acquired, before any diagrams are drawn, before a plan is drawn up, before a single muscle is moved in the direction of a school shooting event like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, a wicked desire is born in the heart of the assailant. These evil desires are produced deep inside the heart of the individual and if they are fed, they can become an external reality.
What provokes such evil thoughts and what empowers an individual to act upon them? Mental health issues, depression, anger, and frustration are all found in one way or another in the lives of these perpetrators. It is wise to focus on these issues, for they are also important aspects of the dilemma. Finding ways to identify and help those that are struggling with these issues will likely reduce the number of incidents, and that is obviously a good thing. But we must not think, even for a moment that this will provide the perfect “fix” either. There are many, many depressed and angry people in our society, in addition to many people with mental health issues, yet rarely do we find them behind these horrible tragedies. Sometimes, it’s mentally healthy people that go out and wreak havoc.
Discussing and focusing some attention on gun control and mental health issues seems to be inevitable and may be effective in making it more difficult for such events to happen, BUT we should be far more concerned with the wickedness that is found in the hearts of the perpetrators of such horrors. What is wrong with man? Why does there seem to be a bent toward evil in the heart of man? Many argue that we are born “good” and society corrupts us. But, we can’t blame society for corrupting “good” people, since society itself (under this assumption) would be nothing more than the grouping of said “good” people. Those who blame society are not entirely wrong, since evil does breed evil, but the foundation of their position is wrong. People are not born good. “Fixing” society so it no longer corrupts man is an exercise in futility. The pursuit of a utopian society may be noble, but even if it were attained, it would not “fix” the problem. Society is dumbfounded when it comes time to explain how man is capable of such evil doings. However, as Christians, we are not. We know that man is sinful by nature. We know that behind the wickedness of the heart is the problem of sin.
What man needs is a new heart. Man needs to have his wicked heart changed, and God is the only one who can do that. King David understood this and cried out when confronted by his own wickedness, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” The entire Psalm 51, from where this cry is taken, is a powerful and accurate assessment of the condition of man. Here too we find the correct diagnosis of the problem of evil in the hearts of man, “For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.” Furthermore, a testament to the effectiveness of dealing with the internal problem as opposed to the externals only can be found in the millions of hearts God has already transformed. For example, rehabilitation programs that focus on the problem of sin in the heart of man and seek God’s help in changing that heart, seem to be far more effective than the programs that focus only on externals. If we truly want to deal with this problem in the most effective way possible, we cannot ignore the externals, but we must also deal with the problem of sin in the heart of man. That’s where prayer comes in.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
What is the purpose of prayer? How effective is it? Is prayer really useless when it comes to keeping children safe? Is deGrasse Tyson right in his attack on prayer? There seems to be a lot of confusion about prayer. Let us begin by clarifying what prayer is and what prayer is not. Prayer is the simple act of communicating with God, similar in many ways to communicating with another human being. And as there are “rules” to effective communication with another human being, , there are some “rules” that make for effective prayer. I will use the analogy of making a phone call to illustrate these. First, you must dial the right number to connect to the right person. Who are we calling out to? If you need emergency responders and you dial 737 instead of 911, they are not coming. There is but one true God and unless one is calling Him, one is dialing the wrong number. Second, God is under no obligation to answer calls that are not from His children; although, in his grace and mercy, he often does (even of those that have attacked him and declared themselves his enemies). Third, even when a child of God dials the right number and God answers the call and listens to the request, sometimes God chooses not to grant the request (at least not in the timing or the exact way we requested). This is often misunderstood to mean that God did not listen, and that prayer is ineffective, but such is not the case. Fourth, we cannot expect from God something He has meant for us to do, something for which he has made us responsible. Expecting God to do what we are supposed to do will result in unnecessary frustration. Whose responsibility is it really to keep our children safe in schools? Honestly, do we not realize that it is OUR responsibility? Those are just some of the basic principles of prayer that are often ignored or misunderstood by its critics.
In order to clarify further what prayer is, let us briefly consider what prayer is not. Prayer is NOT a tool to manipulate God. Prayer is NOT our way of telling God what to do. God is NOT a vending machine in which you deposit five prayers and get next week’s winning lottery numbers in return. Prayer is NOT something we do for God’s benefit—we are the ones who need it—and we do God no favors by praying. Neither is prayer a substitute for action. Prayer is not about magic words or formulas. There are no magic words that guarantee a request will be granted—it’s not about the words—it’s about the heart of the petitioner, the nature of the request, and the will of God in that particular circumstance. Having clarified what prayer is and what it is not, let us deal with the effectiveness of prayer.
Is it true that “prayer can’t fix this” and “the power of Prayer is insufficient to stop bullets”? If by “fix this” we mean that prayer will most likely not take away all the pain, prevent every future shooting, or bring back the dead, then I would agree. But I believe that most of the prayers that were being rejected by these comments were not prayers to “fix this,” but rather to bring comfort to the victims, their families, and all affected by the tragedy. That is something prayer often does. When we ask God to do what we cannot, namely bring peace and comfort to the hurting, He is more than willing and able to do that. But asking God to take away all the pain is the same as asking God to take away our love and compassion, because those are the reasons we feel so much pain. He will not do that.
Now, regarding the power of prayer and bullets, deGrasse Tyson does not seem to understand the God to whom we pray. Do we really believe that the Creator of the universe cannot stop a quarter ounce of lead flying through the air? Further, we don’t have access to some critical data in analyzing the effectiveness of prayer to stop the bullets and we don’t know about the bullets that are never fired because God did not allow them to be fired. How do we know when God has intervened and a tragedy has been averted? We don’t. How many incidents would there be, if there were no God to intervene? We don’t know. Our world is fallen, but God is still involved in the affairs of man. If deGrasse Tyson’s emphasis was on the word “insufficient,” meaning he thinks we ought to do MORE than just praying, I would find myself agreeing with him. Prayer must be accompanied by action. But, that is not what I believe he intends to communicate.
The question is not ultimately about the sufficiency of prayer as much as it is about the purpose of God in allowing the tragedy to happen. The problem of evil and how we can reconcile a good and loving God allowing bad things to happen is a great question. Why didn’t God protect those children from the shooter? I responded in depth to this question in an article I wrote about the Southerland Springs church shooting last year (here), so I won’t elaborate in this post. But it is the underlying question in the aftermath of such tragedies.
How should we be praying? What should we be seeking from God? First, let us not expect God to do what we are responsible for. The Bible is clear on this, when we see a need, we can pray, but we MUST act and do what is within our reach to meet the need.
14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? James 2:14-15 (NLT).
We cannot hide behind our prayers and ignore our responsibility to get involved in being part of the solution. Thus, we need to pray that God would give us courage and wisdom and show us how we can make a difference, how we can play our part. Maybe God would lead us to work with troubled youth or support those who do. Maybe God would have us share the love of Christ with what would have been the next school shooter—only now that he has been given a new heart—he will no longer be that assailant. Maybe God will have us be advocates for change that will help deter the next tragedy. Getting involved is not easy, but we really don’t have a choice—that’s what it means to be the light and salt in this world. We must also continue to pray for God’s peace and comfort in the lives of those that have been affected. The media spotlight will turn off soon, but the pain remains. These families desperately need our prayers and support. Pray that God would show us ways in which we can do more than pray for these families. We must continue to pray for the students and teachers. We must continue to pray for their safety, as we continue to do our part. Prayer and action go hand in hand.
Above all, we must pray that God would change the hearts of man. That through the preaching of the Gospel, people will come to trust Christ as their savior and experience the regeneration of their hearts. I would like to believe that if 19-year-old Nikolas Jacob Cruz would have had a personal relationship with Christ—he would have had a new heart, and we wouldn’t be reading this article, because the shooting would not have happened. It could be that some tried to reach him, and he simply chose to reject it, but maybe nobody took the time to share Christ with him. Regardless, the next Nikolas may be within your reach right now.
Finally, we must not lose heart when attacks are launched on prayer, the Bible, our faith, or even God himself. We know the origin of these attempts to destroy what is good, but they are destined to fail. In the aftermath of these tragedies, regardless of the critics, prayer has survived the attack and is alive and well. People, especially those closest to the tragedy, continue to seek and find solace and comfort in the presence of Almighty God.
 Prisons run by Prison Fellowship have proven to have drastically lower recidivism rates among inmates than their counterparts. See here , here, and here. Drug rehabilitation programs such as Teen Challenge are also highly effective in breaking the chains of addictions, for the same reason. See here, and here. While these statistics are sometimes challenged, what cannot be challenged is the results. Knowing people who have been transformed by God through these ministries is all the validations anyone should desire.