Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).
The Problem with Prayer
In my youth, I saw a poster depicting a shadowy figure walking away as a lonely man sitting in the dark says something to this effect: “I asked for food and shelter and you offered only prayers. Keep them.”
What an evil, I realized, to use piety as an excuse to do nothing. So whenever I encountered human need, I swallowed my prayers of petition and feverishly searched for something to do.
Atheists chide, “Praying accomplishes nothing, so do something!” Ironically, Hebrew prophets offered similar criticism. Here Isaiah shares God’s frustration with prayer and fasting without action:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist….Is such the fast that I choose….to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:3-7).
The Interdependence of Prayer and Action
Yet, the prophets never imagine action without prayer. For each energizes the other. The prophet’s pronouncement itself came through prayer. Only through constant dialogue with God could the prophet offer God’s critique of prayer without action.
To the atheist, praying can only divert me from meaningful action into complacency. But I experience God with me, Immanuel, and only as God moves and shakes my world do things hold together. In Christ’s name I pray, and in prayer he guides my discernment and commands my obedience. Only as he meets me in my need and in others whose needs I serve do my actions have meaning (Matthew 25:40).
On the interdependence of prayer and action, Henri Nouwen said:
Prayer and action, therefore, can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.
The deeper my prayer, the hungrier I feel to serve. The hungrier I feel to serve, the more I realize the need for God’s guidance and help in addressing the world’s needs that overwhelm my capacity.
The more I serve others, the more needs come to my attention. So throughout each day, I record the names of suffering people in a little notebook as I learn of their plights. Then I pray for them before the day’s end. And in the morning, I have a better sense of what to do.
Discernment: The Art of Really Living Your Faith
Mother Teresa: The Heart of a Saint
Crisis Telephone Contemplation
Angels of Mercy: How the Fifth Beatitude Changed Me
God’s Love and Anger
Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeil, & Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. (New York: Image, 1982), 114-115.