Terrorism: Does Prayer Help?

For the Week of December 7, 2015
by Rubel Shelly

The Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in our nation’s capitol. Public transportation in London. School children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. People shopping in a kosher market in Paris. Last week’s victims of a man-woman team of ISIS-inspired murderers in San Bernardino, California. And my list of terror-related events is a short one!

When these terrible things happen, it is not unusual to hear a government official, news reporter, or spokesman for some group say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones.”

Last week the idea of “thoughts and prayers” was chided in a bold front-page statement of the New York Daily News. The full-page headline read: “God Isn’t Fixing This.” Then all sorts of writers – both in public media such as The Atlantic and religious media such as Christianity Today – began to weigh in on it.

In fairness, some of the knee-jerk reaction seemed to be over-reaction. I’m not sure the newspaper was mocking the fact that people pray about these awful settings so much as it claimed that our prayers are going to have to be joined to something meaningful and substantive that will help put a stop to the carnage.

If that was the intended message of the headline and editorial, people who take Scripture seriously can only affirm it. Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah and Amos chided their contemporaries about praying and singing – while, at the same time, neglecting both moral uprightness and compassion for the poor. In the New Testament, James flatly says faith without action is dead and worthless.

So what should believers do when we hear of the next natural disaster, terrible accident, or terrorist attack?

First, pray. Pray for the victims and their families. Pray for people still in jeopardy to be rescued, the injured to recover, and the grieving to find comfort. Pray for the people rushing to their aid and who are in closest proximity to rescue or serve them. Pray for mayors, governors, and federal officials who are trying to find better ways to keep people safe. Pray for a just society. Pray for our enemies – for their evil plans to be thwarted and their hearts to be changed.

Second, act. Do something consistent with what you have prayed. Comfort a frightened person. Give money or send supplies to help people get on their feet. Give blood. Be a responsible participant in the discussion of how to deal with the feeder-problems that cause violence. Affirm our protectors and first-responders. Help an immigrant learn his or her new language and culture.

“So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17 NLT).