Response to Prayer-Shaming

I have no idea if this is a growing trend or only the reaction of a few sad individuals, but in the last few days there have been more and more examples of prayer shaming.

In the wake of the horrible attacks in Paris and most recently in San Bernardino people responded on social media by offering their prayers for those affected. This is a natural thing done around the world as a way of expressing sympathy, sorrow, and compassion as well as reaching to the Heavenly Powers for aid.

But for some reason, there are those who are taking these prayerful offerings and mocking them. The New York Daily News did a front page headline publicly calling out and shaming people who offered their prayers to the victims, calling their prayers “meaningless platitudes.” And there are some voices on the internet that are echoing these sentiments. And yes this criticism was more directed at politics that individual spirituality, but it was an attack on prayer nonetheless.

So how is a faithful Christian to respond to this?

I think we have to look at it as a spiritual attack and a spiritual challenge.

By spiritual attack, I mean that it is an attack on the very idea of spirituality. Calling prayer a meaningless platitude implies that prayer is pointless. In other words, nothing of any substance happens in prayer. In the mind of the critic, petitionary prayer goes nowhere and does nothing. From their point of view it would be like someone saying, “I feel badly for starving people. So I drew a picture of food and then burned the picture in a fire.” Someone engaged in prayer-shaming would see the act of prayer itself as useless smoke and ash doing nothing to truly alleviate the suffering that impelled the prayer.

This is a poisonous mentality. As I have written about in the past, prayer is not magic. The ways of God are not the ways of man. God is not a trained monkey who we can make jump through our hoop upon our command. He is the Lord and we petition His grace rather than forcefully demand His obedience to our will. But in order to keep the correct mindset about prayer, we must wait upon the Lord. When He does not react to our prayers to our liking and on our timetable, we can get the impression that nothing happens. But something always happens in prayer. The result may not be immediately sensed, but it is there.

God does not need our prayers, but he gives us, as Pascal and CS Lewis put it, “the dignity of causality.” Even in grand and distant events, He allows us to participate through prayer. Our prayers act like invisible strings that imperceptibly and mysteriously affect the world around us. Those who engage in prayer-shaming are trying to convince us that we do not have this dignity.

It is the same mindset I have found when discussing with people the seal of confession. Some have told me that a priest should be allowed to break the seal if someone confesses something truly awful, like murder. Their point of view only makes sense if nothing happens in confession. If the sacrament consists of mere empty words, in the same way that the prayer-shamers view petionary prayer, then of course it makes sense for a priest to break the seal to bring a person to justice. But if a real miracle is occurring in the confessional, the miracle of a soul’s absolution, then nothing should be done to endanger it. If petitionary prayer is really affecting both the person at prayer and the object or subject of prayer, then anything which discourages prayer is evil.

But now we must take up the spiritual challenge. When I first had my conversion experience I joined a prayer group that was very devout in its dedication to the rosary, the mass, and praise and worship singing. Someone very close to me asked me one day, “Does your prayer group ever think of doing anything useful?” I immediately became very defensive and thought, “We are PRAYING! That IS useful!” But upon reflection, the main reason I believe I felt this hostility was because it made me reflect on my own lack of physical charity.

The Letter to James is a book of the Bible that always makes me feel terrible, but in a good way. Reading it makes me confront my lack of active charity and moves me forward. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17) I think that the prayer shamers have this image in mind when they lay out their criticism. They should know that the Scriptures agree that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

We must be careful as Christians not to use prayer as a replacement for charity. When that difficult person comes to you to pester you with their problems, it may be easy to excuse yourself and say, “Well I’ll pray for you” instead of doing the more charitable thing of listening patiently. But that doesn’t mean that prayer isn’t a part of charity. The works of man will ultimately lead to nothing without the grace of God.

In the end, the prayer-shamers present us with a false choice of either/or. We must become people of prayer and works. As long as we are living this way, by the grace of God, then we can stand up boldly to those who are trying to shame us. We can say that we stand by our faith and we will not back down.

And we can say that we will pray for them.

Copyright 2015, W. L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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