What Does Prayer Accomplish?


Every time there is a mass shooting, and apparently this is the new normal, the question of prayer is raised. It has become evident that too many Republican politicians refuse to enact any meaningful legislation to combat gun violence and instead only offer “thoughts and prayers”. The phrase has been a stand in for doing nothing.

Is the problem guns? According to a 130 different studies across several nations, gun control was linked with fewer gun deaths. And yet it is impossible to move congress and many state legislatures to enact any laws in this area.

Is the problem mental health? Than why are states and the federal government leading the way in cutting funding to mental health programs?

Is it that we don’t know what works to reduce gun deaths? Then why don’t we dedicate the resources of the federal government to study how to reduce such deaths, instead of blocking it?

Instead we get thoughts and prayers. And this phrase has come to reflect a partisan, religious and ideological divide. The phrase brings revulsion as legislators stand by and do nothing about gun violence. As a pastor who wants to respond to gun violence and who believes in prayer, here’s some initial thoughts of how one might redeem the word and make progress on this issue.

I believe that Harold Kushner is right that we use the word prayer to mean so many different activities and experiences that the word simply cannot carry the weight anymore. So I’d like to break down a few uses of the word prayer.

  1. Congregational prayer. These prayers names who we are, why we are gathered, who God is, what follows from our relation to God. They set the context for any gathering.
  2. Centering Prayer, meditation, quiet time. These prayers allow us to still the mind, to set aside the worries and anxieties of the day. They nurture a kind of self awareness and an awareness of our environment that can be lost with all the blasts of stimuli we encounter.
  3. Prayers of Thanksgiving. There is something fundamentally human about gratitude. Whether it is a blessing over the food or the embrace of the loved ones we treasure or being in awe of some place of meaning and beauty, the need to say thanks remains.
  4. Petitionary Prayer as the name suggests, is a petition to God to affect the outcome of a situation.
  5. Intercessory prayer could fall under petitionary prayer but intercessory prayer, in particular, are the prayers of support and God’s presence for a person or situation. Whereas petitionary prayer has a specific end in view, a changed outcome.

While there are certainly more forms of prayer and more divisions that can be made, we’ll use this as a template for the discussion.

My guess is that the anger against thoughts and prayers does not deal with congregational, centering, or prayers of gratitude. Often our language about prayer assumes petition. That hardly exhausts the prayer life of people. But it is the most common understanding of prayer.

To  pray for an outcome that one has no intention of fulfilling. That is the cause of the anger. To quote Borden Parker Bowne:


Which is to argue that petitonary prayer makes a claim on us and our actions. We ought to be careful what we pray for. It should never be a throw away line because if we pray for a particular end, then we are obligated to follow through with every resource we have, including working with God, towards that end. Otherwise it wasn’t a prayer. At best it was a wish.

A wish is what happens when we can in no way affect the outcome and being powerless we offer our hopes, desires, wishes. They have a place. A friend of mine passed away today as I write this blog post. His medical health was beyond any role I could play. I offered a prayer of intercession, a prayer for God’s presence. And a wish. But it was not a petition. Often pastoral prayers in the mainline take this form of intercession.

Petitions, on the other hand, are not magic. They cannot undo, what Whitehead calls causal efficacy. They cannot stop a bullet that has been released, they cannot undo organ damage, they cannot make me 6 ft 11. Often prayer is taken as a form of magic and as many critics of religion have pointed out, prayer in that form fails. It’s failure rate is rather consistent.

But prayer that works with the given resources at hand to affect an outcome that can genuinely be affected. Which is why the teenagers marching for gun control and safer schools are engaged in prayer.

The problem is not thoughts and prayers. It is not that petitionary prayer fails to work. It is that petitionary prayer works when we partner with God to the good in life when it is within the power and resources at hand. And the teenagers seem to get that more than our politicians do.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings


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