There are times when I’m afraid to say that I’ll pray for someone. Not because it means that I actually have to do it, but because I’m afraid that it might not be the appropriate response.
When people are hurting, suffering from wounds too deep for us to fathom, do they really want to hear that we’ll be praying for them? Christians and non-Christians throw around prayer like a blanket term to show concern, but not everybody receives it in that loving manner. There are some people who are offended by the statement, believing it to be a cop-out for actually doing something to help them in their time of need. Just recently this debate surfaced when a number of atheists led a campaign on Twitter announcing to actually do something for the tragedy in Oklahoma rather than just pray.
We unfortunately do live in turbulent times where people are in need a lot. Disasters strike, homes are destroyed, and people need help. When they need help, how do we know which is the appropriate response: praying for or doing something?
Before we dive into the discussion of what the person needs, lets dissect the position of the giver and the condition in which they give. For the giver, the best way to respond to any situation is the one that shows concern and empathy for the person in need. Along with help, the person in need wants to feel a connection with the person giving. So before giving, we must ask: what do we value more? If we value money, then giving our money to the person in need will show willingness to restore the situation. If we value God more, then offering prayer is that highest degree of consolation we could offer that person.
Then comes the question: how could we best serve the person in need? By praying for them or by helping them in a tangible way? First off, praying for them, when we believe in a powerful God, is helping them. Often times, our culture wants to place the two at odds, but help can come in the form of prayer. This happens especially when we have no tangible resource to give. When we have nothing physical to give, we can pray for help to come in another form, and that is helping. Praying for someone shows that we have more faith in a greater power rather than the work of our own hands, and at times, the pain is so great that we need to look beyond ourselves for help.
I’m not saying that giving something is better than prayer. What I’m saying is that doing something falls within the realm of prayer.
On determining what will be the best help to offer a person in need, first discern for yourself: how is this person satisfied? There are people out there who respond greatly when someone says they will pray for them in their grief, but there are also people who are more satisfied with something tangible. Jesus Himself saw this distinction and called it out.
In John 4:48, Jesus tells the official that he would not believe unless He sees a sign, or in other words, the official would not believe in Jesus unless He provided for him what he needed.
This is how it is with some people in our culture. They would not believe in the work of God unless we provide for them first. And we should be pointing to Christ in all we do with the hopes that they will find life in God. So how do we respond to these people? In John 4:50, we find our answer. Jesus provided for the official by healing His son. As a way to show the official the love of God, Jesus gave him something tangible in His time of need. And then in John 4:53, we find that the official believes in Jesus once He finds that his son is healed.
While the official was wired to be satisfied with tangible providence, there are those who are satisfied by prayer. Jesus notes on this in John 20:29 by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The privileged people are those who believe in God even though they have no proof in their pain-stricken hands.
You can usually tell who these people are by hearing how they describe their need. In John 4:47, we see that the official specifically asks for Jesus to heal his son. He asked for this and Jesus effectively showed God’s love by giving him what he needed.
In the end, prayer and doing something are not two forces at odds. You don’t have to do one or the other. In fact, love is more graciously conveyed when the person in need knows they are being provided for and prayed for.
As more disasters come our way, may we truly serve people and effectively show the love of God to them by having discernment in when to give and when to pray. But as a final point, lets not pretend to know what a person needs. This is when people are hurt more in their pain. Connect with the person and the situation, and meet them where they are at with their need, just like Jesus did. Do this in hopes of God being glorified in the healing.