In light of the recent tragedy in San Bernardino, the New York Daily News and other outlets (notably, HuffPo) have challenged believers by, essentially, saying, “spare us your prayers. God isn’t going to fix this.”
As a pastoral counselor, I hear different versions of this all the time. Specifically, “What good is prayer if I have to do all the work anyway?”
Many people have an incomplete–and frankly, disordered–understanding of the purpose of prayer. They engage in prayer as if they are offering up a spiritual work order. All they need to do is tell God, “Fix this” and then stand back and wait. If he does, “It’s miracle!” If he doesn’t then “It’s his will.”
Sometimes miracles do happen. Things spontaneously improve without us lifting a finger. What a wonderful gift it is when this happens. But as with any gift, we cannot take these spiritual gifts for granted. The norm is for us to pray and work. As Pope Francis put it, “You pray for the poor. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
But if that’s how prayer works, why pray at all? Why not just feed them (or do whatever else it is we are praying about)? Here is a metaphor that I find helpful.
Another Brick in the Wall
Imagine standing facing a huge wall. You can’t climb it–it’s too tall. You can’t tunnel under it–its foundation goes deep into the ground. You have to break through the wall. How do you begin? You could simply start hammering away at part of the wall and hope that you’ve picked a weak spot OR you could stop and pray.
As you pray, God shines a light on the other side of the wall. A bright, penetrating light. You can’t see much of it, but on your side of the wall, you suddenly see that certain parts of the wall are beginning to glow and some parts are glowing more brightly than others. Upon closer examination, you see that where the wall is glowing, there appear to be small cracks or weaknesses. In fact, it appears that the parts of the wall that are glowing the brightest are the parts where there are significant structural weaknesses. If you strike there, not only will those bricks come out, but they may just bring the whole wall down with them!
Prayer: Grace Building on Nature
I think this metaphor serves as a simple illustration of St Thomas Aquinas’ maxim that “grace builds on nature.” Grace, for the most part, does not stand in stead of human action and the laws of nature, but–generally speaking– it makes them infinitely more efficient. Prayer does not preclude us from working hard but it allows that work to bear much, much more fruit and do it much much more efficiently. Through prayer, God multiplies our efforts like he multiplied the loaves and fishes. For more information on how you can cooperate with God’s grace in your life, check out The Life God Wants YOU to Have: Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail.