The Subversive Power of Prayer

The Subversive Power of Prayer

‘Thoughts and prayers.’ A phrase so often uttered in response to a tragedy. Perhaps sincerely. Perhaps cliché. Perhaps cynically. After all, aren’t they often just hollow words offered in the place of action? Shove your ‘prayers’ in a sack, mister; we want you to do something!

But far more than empty words offered in place of meaningful action, prayer in itself is meaningful action. Powerful action. Indeed, prayer alone gives at least three meaningful and tangible outcomes—regardless how God chooses to answer.

Firstly, when we pray we are acknowledging our own powerlessness. Those who presume to have all the answers to society’s ills, or who believe that all our problems can be solved by an act of human will, or human knowledge—the right science, the right policy settings—such people have no use for prayer.

In contrast, when we ‘cast our cares on Him’ (1 Peter 5:7) we are acknowledging that these things are, at least to some extent, beyond our power and wisdom. This is a profound act of humility. Even if we begin without this humility, prayer trains us to be humble, if we allow it to. The choice to pray reminds us to see our limitations and the need for action and power beyond ourselves.

This leads to prayer’s second outcome: through prayer we acknowledge to ourselves and the world the power of God. I am powerless, but God is powerful. I don’t have all the answers, but God does. This is especially challenging when it seems like God’s willingness, if not ability, to act is so absent or random. Why was this person’s illness healed, but not the other’s? Why doesn’t God punish my enemies who continue to prosper? If God can fix the world then why doesn’t he?

It’s easy to fixate on instances where God apparently does not act instead of those where he does, whether we identify them accurately or not. ‘Remember that day when God didn’t let a meteor fall on my head,’ said nobody ever.

But do we, or do we not, believe that God is intimately involved in every aspect of His creation, causing the sun to rise and set, and bringing the rain, yes, on the unrighteous as well as the righteous? If God is not involved, of course prayer is pointless. But if God is involved, prayer makes perfect sense, whether or not we understand the response.

This is why prayer first calls us to be humble, to recognise that God’s actions are often beyond our own understanding. Prayer is not transactional but relational. It forces us to reckon with the times that God (despite our persistent pleas) chooses not to remove the thorn in our flesh because, in his wisdom, his will may be done somehow through its remaining.

This is not to say that God necessarily wills for all kinds of atrocities to persist even though we might consistently pray for them to cease. But we must recognise two alternatives: that there is some mystery in God’s purposes that tolerates them or, much more confronting, that their existence doesn’t indict God, but indicts us—both individually and collectively as a people.

Which leads to prayer’s third outcome, which seems paradoxical given the first: time spent in prayer calls us to act and to change. Yes, I am limited and weak. But God is powerful, and I am God’s instrument. Prayer reminds us of our agency as beings created in God’s image. Much evil persists in the world because of people like me, so I must first repent for my own culpability, great or small.

I may not have committed adultery, but I have lusted in my heart. I may not have committed murder, but I have hated in my heart. I may not have declared war, or sabotaged peace, but I have remained embittered with my neighbour and friend. These acts are small and seemingly insignificant in isolation, but taken together across all peoples and all times, who would begrudge God his righteous anger at mankind? And it starts with me.

But just as my own sin—our own sin—contributes to the world’s ills, so too does my goodness—our goodness—bring light into the world. And when prayer helps me choose between the two, it changes the world.

David often prays in the Psalms, ‘teach me your ways’ (e.g. Psalm 25:4; 86:1). If we focus on the ‘teach’ then maybe prayer is nothing more than a subjective intellectual exercise and deserves to be viewed cynically by unbelievers. But if our focus is on the ‘ways’ we realise that prayer prompts us to act. And to do so in accordance with God’s will as he has made it known to us.

In a world full of blame shifting and power games, prayer is a subversive act. It operates from a different paradigm of power, agency, and responsibility than we are used to. Contrary to worldly powers, genuine prayer declares that we aren’t perfect and don’t have all the answers. It declares that God is powerful and in control. And it reminds us that we each have a part to play with our own actions, be they good or bad.

I am powerless, yet powerful. Perhaps, far from being a paradox, this is grace. I am limited but empowered. Though I am weak, I can act with boldness in the world through full dependence on God: his power is ‘made perfect in [my] weakness’ (1 Corinthians 12:9).

Such is the power of prayer.

This article first appeared in InterSections, February 2024.