A recent TV newsclip on the Ukrainian invasion showed worshippers in a Ukrainian church lighting candles and offering prayers. The commentator referred to their ‘unanswered prayers’ for Ukraine, implying such prayers are ineffectual and futile, and a mark of the desperation of a people increasingly suffering from Russian aggression.
Is that all these prayers are? A sign of desperation?
It all depends on how we regard prayer.
How do we regard such prayers?
Was prayer answered in the release of those who were trapped in the steelworks in Mariupol?
Many prayed for the release of the civilians, including women and children, from the steelworks’ bunkers. Now they have been released, thanks to the hard work, persistence and no doubt negotiation skills of the agencies involved. Is this the miracle that many prayed for?
But what about the wounded soldiers needing care, and those holed up who are continuing to fight? How are they to be prayed for?
Prayer can be complicated. It can be many things. As can how we interpret whether prayers have been answered or not.
Let’s consider what prayer is NOT.
Prayer is not provocation. One morning when I was in Jerusalem our group had received permission to visit the Temple Mount, a site sacred to both Jews and Arabs, but under the jurisdiction of the latter. We arrived at one of the temple gates and were ushered into a nearby sheltered courtyard because it had begun to rain. Soon came the disappointing news – no, we could not visit that day, as there had been an ‘incident.’ Later we discovered what had happened. A group of Israelis had gathered in the courtyard and were offering prayers. It was a deliberate act of provocation, more political than anything else, as they knew they would get a reaction. The group was taken away, and the whole site shut down to any visitors that day.
Prayer is not a pietistic pose. It was said of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day that they loved to be seen praying in public, showing off their piety. In the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the praying that Jesus commends is the genuine, heartfelt prayer of the tax collector, and not that of the Pharisee, who was telling God how good he was. Instead, Jesus encouraged people to pray in private.
Prayer is not a laundry list. It’s not simply telling God all the things that we or others need. It’s not a ritual to be gone through, a pietistic turning of the right phrases, as people might turn a prayer wheel. It’s not particular ways of praying, whether the words used are from a book or from a collection of words and phrases that some Christian groups feel are necessary ways of praying.
So, what is prayer?
Prayer IS a relationship. It’s a coming to God with what’s on our hearts and minds. It may include specific requests and pleas. It may include the whole range of human emotions. It doesn’t matter whether we use words that others have used for centuries, or recently written words, or our own spontaneous words. It can be silent – or prayer can be sung – or the same words can be said together in a group. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes prayer is unformed; it’s the groaning of the Spirit within us, as Paul says. Sometimes it’s in another language, either known or unknown to the person voicing their prayer. It’s the coming to God that matters.
President Zelensky has encouraged anyone who prays to use Psalm 31 when praying for Ukraine. There’s much power in adopting the words of Scripture as we pray for a country in so much need. It’s not so much the specifics of what is being prayed for, when praying in this way – it’s rather the heart-felt turning to God, to the One who alone is above and beyond and yet also present in the horror that is happening in that country.
I suspect that this was what was happening in the brief news item showing people praying in a Ukrainian church. Our God knows – and hears – the cries of their hearts, whether prayer is ‘answered’ or not.
Jesus encourages us to pray. And in so doing, we join with the countless others who are also praying, including those gathered in churches in Ukraine, (and in Russia) regardless of the outcome. And as the invasion continues, let us ‘not be weary in well-doing,’ as Paul says, but continue to pray, as the Spirit leads us.
Liz Hay rejoices in living in a beautiful part of God’s creation in a high country mountain basin; and she also rejoices in hearing stories of God at work in people’s lives. One of her favourite activities is reading fascinating biographies that illustrate the wonderful ways God works uniquely with each person.