File this under the category of “Ricky Gervais is a twit.” A twittering twit of a tweeter, that is.
The comedic actor and outspoken atheist, is taking shots at the folks in Twitterworld who are adding “#PrayForOklahoma” to their Tweets (a word that no one can say without sounding either like a two-year old or Mel Blanc). According to Gervais, prayers are insufficient gestures, and people instead should “do something,” like donate to the Red Cross. (For consistency’s sake, he should say the “Red Perpendicular Intersection,” but atheists have enough problems without me picking on them.) The snarky little man is getting some publicity, so good for him.
I think, however, he raises an interesting point. Virtually every day I see someone expressing “prayers” on somebody’s behalf on Twitter or Facebook. (And I’m not talking about the sophomoric memes soliciting endorsements of “1 like = 1 prayer.” That just seems goofy to me. As if God is in Heaven fist-bumping Michael the Archangel and yelling “I got 400,000 “likes” today!). Much like the longstanding tradition of telling someone who has lost a friend or family member “My thoughts and prayers are with you,” and then never thinking or praying about that person afterward, do such expressions really “count” as prayers? More importantly, do they do any good?
First, I have to admit that I agree with Gervais on one thing: Prayer accompanied by action is much preferable to prayer alone. If the guy at the table next to me is choking on his Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, he is much better off with me getting out of my chair to give him the Heimlich maneuver (developed as a result of someone choking on sauerkraut and a bratwurst) as opposed to me falling to my knees and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. He’d be sure to give me some dirty looks when I got to the part about walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
That said, I believe in the power of prayer. More specifically, I believe that prayer standing alone, had real power, both in spiritual and practical terms.
From a spiritual perspective, I believe prayers are heard and answered. I don’t claim to know the process by which that happens. I don’t believe that God will torture us if we don’t pray (“Lord, please don’t let that fall on me…”). I don’t believe that God bargains over blessings (“I swear, Lord, if my wife doesn’t wake up when I come home, I’ll never drink again….”). But I do believe that a loving Father in Heaven hears the petitions of His children and will answer them when it is appropriate and in our best interest to do so. I have had too many experiences with prayer to deny that. And I believe that collective prayers have an effect as well. When I was recovering from my automobile accident last year, I felt the prayers offered on my behalf by hundreds of people, most of whom did not know me. I suspect that our healing would have been much more difficult without those prayers.
From a practical standpoint, I think that praying on someone’s behalf makes us more mindful of other people, more sensitive to their needs, and more willing to find ways to help. In short, I believe that when we pray for someone, we are more likely to become the source of the answered prayer. It is easy to forget the suffering of others. But when we hold that suffering in our hearts and heads long enough to make it the subject of prayer, our love towards those for whom we are praying increases, as does our willingness to extend meaningful service. As with many things, I believe that we are commanded to pray not because God likes hearing us beg, but because prayer does something positive for us and for those around us. God is, in my view, the perfect pragmatist.
Another value to expressions of prayers is the effect that such expressions have on the hearts of those for whom we pray. When I hear that people are praying for me, I know that they are pulling for me, too. It gives me strength and hope to know that I am not forgotten and that other people are invested in my well-being. When I heard that people across the country stopped and prayed for me and my daughters at the time of our accident, that meant the world to me. Those people were in a position where all they could do for me is pray. And they did all that they could do. That energized me, comforted me, and buoyed me up with hope.
I don’t think God has a Twitter account (although I’m dying to know who He would follow). But I do think that He knows our hearts, and that when we express a prayer on behalf of someone, He notices. I think that He hears our petitions. And I think that He inspires us with impressions as to how we can help. Prayer draws us closer not only to God, but to each other, and because of that, I think that every #prayer counts for something.