A defense of prayer in the wake of the Sutherland Springs massacre

November 7, 2017

I have exactly zero interest in wading into the politics of gun control and Second Amendment rights in America. This blog is not about politics. I recognize, however, that politics is at least the subtext of complaints on social media about the ineffectiveness of prayer in the wake of last Sunday’s massacre of 28 worshipers at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for victims and their families.

In response, many critics said, in so many words, “These people were already praying! They were in church, after all. Fat lot of good it did them! We don’t need more prayer. We need action“–and, of course, the nature of this action is precisely what divides people on the left and right (which, again, I’m not talking about in this post or the comments section).

Actor and comedian Michael McKean, in one typical example, tweeted the following (which he has since been deleted):

His words, “They had the prayers shot right out of them,” were perceived by many as insensitive. He later clarified:

By “hypocrisy,” he likely means politicians who fail to do anything other than pray when it comes to dealing with mass shootings in America.

Regardless, one message from tweets such as this is, “Prayer doesn’t work. God’s not going to do anything. Let’s do something constructive instead.” Even an otherwise well-written, and heartbreaking, article in the New York Times on victims of the shooting included this headline:

Do you hear the message? “Even for people who were in church praying last Sunday, prayer doesn’t work.”

Forgive me if I’m being overly sensitive, but this relates to my vocation, after all. I hate for anyone to have even less incentive to pray or trust in the Lord. Besides, it directly relates to my sermon last Sunday, which I’ll post soon.

I preached on Philippians 1:12-26. As I explained on Sunday, the apostle Paul is likely under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before the emperor Nero, sometime during the two-year period described by Luke in Acts 28:30-31.

Obviously, Paul could perceive his imprisonment as a tragic setback: He was called, after all, to spread the gospel among the Gentiles and to plant new churches. How can he do this work from prison? So the Philippians are likely worried about him: Is he O.K.?

Paul is writing, in part, to reassure them.

He wants them to know that he’s more than O.K. In fact, his being in prison has “served to advance the gospel” in three significant ways, which he describes in verses 12-18. One result of Paul’s imprisonment, as we learn at the end of the letter, is that members of “Caesar’s household” have even been converted (Phil. 4:22).

Quoting an old Phil Keaggy song, I encouraged my congregation to learn to see disappointment as “his appointment,” meaning that if things don’t go according to our plans–even plans for which we earnestly pray–they will always go according to God’s plan for us.

Does that means prayer doesn’t work?

Paul prayed for his continued success reaching Gentiles with the gospel–which for him, included being released from prison. Did God answer his prayer? In a way. God used Paul’s imprisonment to reach more people, perhaps, than Paul would have reached had he remained free. Obviously, however, God did not grant his petition for freedom. As I said on Sunday:

But hold on a minute… Maybe you’re thinking, “Pastor Brent is talking about God transforming our disappointments into something good, but we know that Paul’s imprisonment in Rome would ultimately lead to his death. Despite the hope expressed in verse 26 that Paul would come and visit the Philippians again, he never had a chance. He never got out of prison. He was executed. So how did Paul’s ‘disappointment’ work out for him?”

It worked out beautifully well. It worked out better than Paul could have imagined. It far surpassed any of Paul’s own plans. Why do I say that? Because Paul went to heaven. Because for him, living is Christ and dying is gain! Because he got to depart and be with Christ, which, as he says in verse 23 is “far better” than being here.

That New York Times article I mentioned earlier points out that 86-year-old Joe Holcombe, who lost his children and grandchildren in the massacre, is the last surviving member of his family. Is he overwhelmed with grief? Hardly! He said, “We know where they are now… All of our family members, they’re all Christian. And it won’t be long until we’re with them.”

If we believe, along with Paul, that to “live is Christ and to die is gain,” how can we not share Mr. Holcombe’s perspective?

I said in my sermon two weeks ago that the devil has great power to harm us. He is, after all, a creature who, like us, rebelled against God and abuses the freedom that God has given him in order to do evil. Obviously, the scale of his evil is greater than we can imagine. The devil’s influence was clearly on display in the events of last Sunday in Sutherland Springs.

But as I said in my sermon, he can’t harm us in any ultimate way–even if, through violence, he takes our life. Our treasure is in Christ. It’s waiting for us in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).

Devin Patrick Kelley didn’t touch that treasure.

And inasmuch as surviving church members in Sutherland Springs prayed for the safety and welfare of 28 brothers and sisters in Christ who are now dead, how can we say that God didn’t answer those prayers? Those 28 saints are with Christ in heaven, awaiting resurrection. They couldn’t be safer!

And for skeptics who complain that God didn’t do anything to keep the victims safe, he did! He suffered and died on a cross to ensure that even a gunman’s bullet couldn’t separate them from him and his love.

3 Responses to “A defense of prayer in the wake of the Sutherland Springs massacre”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    The plain fact is, everybody is going to die sometime (other than if Christ returns first). So God is not making something happen that would not otherwise happen to these good people. He is just determining the time for that. “For our times are in his hands.”

    As far as, “Well, they could have done so much had they lived!”, it is pertinent to note that a huge chunk of those who die “could have done more,” but to what end? The only REAL “work” which matters is what is done for God. So, if God is satisfied with what they have done to that point, who is to complain? Obviously not the deceased! They are in the best place of all.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    What a narrow view of prayer. We don’t just pray to be safe, although that’s one type of prayer.

    There are prayers of PRAISE and ADORATION.
    There are prayer. of PETITION.
    There are prayers for INTERCESSION.
    There are prayers of THANKSGIVING.

    To name a few.

    Prayer is how Christians connect with GOD. And that’s something that can’t be “shot out of them”.

    Jesus prayed when he was hanging on the cross; “Father forgive them…”

    Jesus prayed before his trials; “If this cup can be taken from me….”

    Non-Christians just don’t understand what our Faith is all about. They think it’s some kind of superstitious mumbo jumbo that we hope will keep us safe and prosperous. There are “Health-Wealth-Prosperity’ churches, but that’s not Christianity. That’s a con game.

    This is a fallen world, full of evil. I am thankful for my Lord and Savior. He changed it all by giving us “a way home”.


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