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Deacon Kyle Eller: How should we respond to ‘prayer shaming’?

Feb 9, 2018

I’m not sure exactly when I first encountered the phenomenon of “prayer shaming,” but I do remember how deeply it offended me. I still find it one of the most disturbing turns our culture has taken in the past few years. (And that’s saying something.)

If you pay attention to current events, you have encountered it too. According to the Internet, pundits, and many politicians, we are now supposed to be upset when someone says victims of some tragedy are in her “thoughts and prayers.”

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

The idea is that saying we’re praying for someone means we’re not “doing something.” The implication is that saying we’re praying is just putting a pious face on indifference or even an opposition to solving problems.

The most common place this comes up these days is mass shootings and the issue of gun control, although I have seen it in other contexts too, perhaps the most unlikely of which was a conservative Christian Facebook friend dismissing prayer (in contrast to military solutions) as a response to terrorism.

There are many things wrong with this. Most egregious is that treating prayer as an ineffectual waste of time is blasphemy, used as social pressure to enforce practical atheism. It is an attempt to coerce everyone to act as though God did not exist or face the consequence of being considered a rube at best or monster at worst.

Another obvious problem is the harsh personal judgment prayer shaming involves. I have no doubt there are hypocrites who claim to pray in order to appear as though they care about things they don’t care about. But I wouldn’t accuse someone of that without overwhelming evidence. Does disagreeing about gun control really qualify? I suggest obviously not.

Just in the interest of full disclosure on that subject, I’m very open minded about it. I’m not a big gun guy, although I have training and experience with them. I don’t for a second think that guns are the main cause of (or solution for) mass violence — it seems beyond dispute to me that the disease is a deeper crisis of meaning and communion. At the same time, treating symptoms can be worthwhile, and I’m open to the possibility some particular gun regulation could help.

There are intelligent and good faith people and rational arguments on both sides of that important debate. Pretending, instead, that everyone on the other side is some inhuman monster contributes nothing but bullying and character assassination. To do this by attacking prayer, one of the noblest and deepest responses of the human heart, makes it even more toxic and destructive.

The question remains: How should we, as Catholic Christians, respond to prayer shaming?

The glib but true answer is that we should pray more and act more effectively. The two go together.

Sometimes prayer is all we really have, but usually God calls us both to prayer and to action. St. James tells us, “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?” (James 2:15-16).

And while God does sometimes work miracles, most of the time he works through secondary causes, like us. If my child is sick and I pray for healing, I know from the outset that it’s likely he will work through a doctor, and when that happens, we rightly thank both God and the doctor.

In fact, this is one of the reasons our prayer is so important: It’s essential to making our action fruitful. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “without me you can do nothing” (15:5). As countless spiritual writers attest and countless saints’ lives demonstrate, it is through prayer — through the interior life — that our actions really become effective.

So putting prayer and action in opposition to each other is a fatal mistake likely to sap our action of its vitality and effectiveness. Those in a position to act for good have all the more reason to pray. Acting with God’s help is far better than acting without it.

We need God’s wisdom, too. This is all the more true when it comes to problems that are deep and difficult and seemingly intractable, and solutions are complicated and murky and partial, full of subtle trade-offs and unintended consequences. Many of our deep problems are like that, despite the fact that we live in an arrogant time, when many people seem to approach the world like overgrown high school sophomores, who have their surefire “simple, obvious solutions” no one before them was smart enough or good-willed enough to try.

Coming to God in prayer demands the opposite approach — the humility of not having all the answers and recognizing part of the problem is in me, in my own limits, my own brokenness, my own pride.

And of course the truth is that God does act, usually mysteriously, in his providence. Sometimes the Berlin Wall does really fall without a shot fired. Why wouldn’t we ask him to come to our aid in these problems, in his time and in his way? Why wouldn’t we want to stay close to him and discern where he is acting?

So yes, it’s glib but true. Our response to prayer shaming ought to be that we pray more and therefore act more effectively. The two go together.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@dioceseduluth.org.