After the Las Vegas shootings, what is the point of prayer?

Many commentators are claiming that action, not prayer, is the right response to tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting. Are they right?

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, social media feeds have been filled to the brim with 'thoughts and prayers' for the victims and their families, coming from world leaders, religious figures, people of faith, and people following convention.

It feels like we have been here before. We have prayed for London, for Paris, for Marseilles, for Brussels, for Berlin, for Orlando, for everywhere struck by a terrorist attack. But still they continue. So, what's the point?

When we inform the world on social media that we are praying for victims of a terrorist attack, are we simply virtue signalling? Does tweeting a prayer represent time actually spent petitioning God or is it chiefly a way of expressing sympathy while also gesturing towards one's own character as someone engaged and compassionate? Jesus was highly critical of this sort of behaviour. He said: 'And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you' (Matthew 6:5).

A prayer penned on social media for the sake of likes, retweets and admiration is one upon which God seemingly does not look kindly. Like the 'pics or it didn't happen' meme, there may be a risk of believing that a prayer is only meaningful if it is seen and amen'd by other Twitter users.

There does seem to be something of a crowd mentality when it comes to prayers broadcast on social media. For it is not quite true that everywhere affected by terrorism receives the same public outpouring of prayer. A story map of terrorist attacks listening them all by date– 1018 in this year alone– makes clear that most attacks never enter public consciousness in the West. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakhistan, Syria – these countries are affected on a near daily basis, but we in Europe and the US remain largely ignorant. It is too chronic, too continuous, to receive media coverage. The places that perhaps most need divine intervention, then, are overlooked when our prayer-life follows the rhythm set by the news cycle.

If tweeted prayers for Las Vegas are more about ego and a sense of belonging for the person praying, it is perhaps unsurprising that activists and victims are demanding action, not prayer.

Nevertheless, prayer remains a valid response to tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting. Here are four reasons why. 

First, for the Christian, the distinction between prayer and action is a false dichotomy. The Bible teaches that prayer can help bring about God's will on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus instructed his followers to ask God for things, promising us that they would be given (Matthew 7:7; John 14:13-16). No matter how powerless we feel when faced with situations so deeply entrenched and complex or forces so powerful that we feel they are insurmountable, the promise concerning prayer is that we are never helpless. We are always able to plead with a God whose power is ministered in love.

As theologian Greg Boyd puts it: 'The biblical narrative is significantly woven around God moving in response to prayer. From Cain's plea for leniency (Genesis 4:13-15) to the Israelites' cry for freedom (Exodus 2: 23–25; 3: 7–10; Acts 7:34); from Moses' cry for help at the Red Sea and against the Amalakites (Exodus 14:15–16; 17: 8–14) to Hezekiah's prayer for an extension of life (2 Kings 20: 1–7); and from Abraham's prayer for a son (Genesis 15:2ff) to the leper's prayer to Jesus for healing (Matthew 8:2-3), the biblical narrative is woven together by examples of God moving in extraordinary ways in response to the prayers of his people.'

It may not feel like our prayers are being answered – Jesus recognised as much in his parables about perseverance in prayer (Luke 11: 5-10; Luke 18: 1-8). But prayer is an act of faith in which we must persist, trusting that God does work for the good in all things, even when from our finite, human perspective, it does not look that way.

Second, prayer is a means of waging spiritual warfare. With many condemning terrorists as 'pure evil', it can be easy to forget what Paul wrote to the Ephesians: 'Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms' (Ephesians 6:12). The Bible is clear that our world is not just composed of the material, but that it is a site of spiritual battle. It follows, then, that our preeminent means of defeating evil is not through material weapons but spiritual power, namely prayer.

Third, prayer also involves listening to God. It should be more like a conversation than leaving an answerphone message. In a time of silence, the Holy Spirit may show us ways in which we can be at least a partial response to our own prayer – through giving money, time or championing a cause more directly, for example ­– or ways in which we are complicit with the issue we are protesting against. God uses prayer as a means of our own sanctification, even when we are only asking for others to be changed.

Fourth, we are commanded to pray for our enemies. This may feel offensively inclusive, but it is what differentiates prayer from kindly thoughts. Praying for those responsible for terrorism as well as those harmed by it is a reminder of the astounding, undeserved nature of grace and that God longs for the redemption of all people, however far they have strayed. The subversive potential of prayer is that it may change our hearts to, like God's, yearn for those considered irredeemable by worldly standards to be transformed by the love of God.

So yes, it is right to pray in the wake of atrocities like the Las Vegas attack, and to pray for countries which are facing too much ongoing violence to be counted newsworthy. But when it comes to praying via social media, perhaps we need to be more cautious, ensuring that we are seeking to be heard by our Father in heaven, rather than our followers. We can ask for the source of all comfort to draw close to those who need it most, and trust that our prayer will be heard, not because it is retweeted, but because of who God is.