Crazy Old People: Thoughts on Prayer

I used to think old people were crazy. Not just crazy because they’d drive 48 in a 65, or because they watched the local news that looked like it was put on by a middle school journalism class. Rather, I thought they were crazy because they spent so much time praying.

The older people at my church, I heard growing up, would spend hours each week in prayer. “Hours! Praying? That’s unbelievable,” I thought. The older people would tell me they were praying for me, or for the church, or for our country. And they always seemed happy to pray more; for the sad, the suffering, and the sick.

“Of course prayer’s important,” I would have said. But in my heart, I valued the doing. I wanted to be out in the fray, grappling with the issues of society and creating the future. I pitied the old people, that in their old age they only had prayer, while I had the potential of my whole life in front of me.

I felt sad for them, thinking that the real action was out in the public square. Their day had come and gone, and with it their chance to influence the world. That realization spurred me on to do even more, to capitalize on my youth and to push myself to work harder. Someday, I knew, I would be resigned to that life, to senior citizen socials, to sending birthday cards, and to afternoons alone with God. And so I doubled down on my efforts to put my stamp on society while I still could.

But, I believed, this was a great combination; they’d be busy praying and I’d be busy doing. They’ll spend their time with God, and I’ll spend my time working. Somebody has to do the work I thought, and I’ll put in the effort to make good on all of their prayers.

Fast forward fifteen years. I’ve been thinking back to when I was younger, when I had that confidence that many American youth have: that with enough hard work and determination I can impose my, I mean God’s, will onto the world. Now, after fifteen years of effort, my belief in that mindset of hard work and determination is floundering. I’ve seen a lot of people put in a lot of years trying to “make it happen,” yet we don’t seem any better off than we used to be.

Every day I hear about more and more problems that plague our society; all accompanied by the call for each of us to do more to fix them. Over the past weeks there’s been conversations about racial reconciliation, women’s rights, just policing, the direction of our country, unfair imprisonment, unemployment, crime-riddled neighborhoods, and the poor. And these crowd out overseas issues like war in Syria and South Sudan, hacking in Russia, and hunger in Yemen, Nigeria, and more. What can I do against such deep and embedded problems? It’s often hard to even know who’s right, much less what to do. The work of my one life seems insignificant in the face of the complexities of the issues we collectively face.

Unfortunately, when we think about how to impact these situations in the world around us, prayer isn’t high on the list. You change society through hard work, we’re told. Post more on social media; organize more marches; recruit more young people; these are our strategies of choice. Add together passion and long hours and lots of late nights, and before you know it you will get results.

But I’m seeing how this “make things happen” approach causes more problems than it solves. Newton’s third law applies just as much to society as to science: for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. For every person “making it happen” through the means of this world, there’s another person embittered and angered by that action. The world says to accumulate power and capital, and then to strategically use it to further your vision. But after several generations of both sides trying to strong-arm their way to change, we have a nation of damaged and hurting people, seething with anger at anyone who opposes their agenda for society.

As I see the tension between the different groups in our nation, I wonder how can change ever happen? Is social peace possible? Will the vitriol ever recede? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but my faith in the effectiveness of human effort in changing hearts and lives is bottoming out. I feel an emptiness towards the promises of hard work, logical thinking, and inevitable improvement.

Because of this, I’m starting to pray more. Prayer is what happens when you get to the end of yourself and recognize how little humans can control. I feel helpless and am not sure what to do, so I’m turning to God, asking him to work. I’m realizing that the only way to combat problems bigger than myself is to pray to a God bigger than the problems.

“But God calls us to act!” you might say. Sure, he does, but what if no matter what group you’re in, you spent more time with God to first understand his will, before asking him to bless yours? In our rush to advance our ideals, we forget the unspoken other halves of Jesus’ well-known metaphors: that too much salt kills and too much light blinds. Social action should come out of an attitude of grace, humility, and mercy, which all flow out of fellowship with God. It is only through prayer that we grow close enough to God to give up our plans, and to open our hearts enough to be used in his.

And so through all of this it’s dawned on me: I used to think that old people prayed a lot because they were too old to do any real work, but now I know it’s because it takes 80 plus years to realize that prayer is the only thing that ever really works.