Is it a prayer or a cop-out?

Lord, I promise–next time!

Several years ago, I was sitting in church listening to my pastor ask the congregation if there were any needs the church could pray for. A woman stood up and confessed that her husband had recently lost his job and they were struggling to pay their mortgage that month. The pastor asked those sitting around her to stand and pray that God would provide the employment and funds needed for this family to get back on their feet. As two men rose from their seats to lay hands on her, I noticed something interesting in their back pockets. Anyone care to guess what it was?

Fat wallets. The provision for this woman’s need was less than arm’s length away.

Certainly, prayer is a vital part of the Christian life. The Bible says we are to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), pray for God’s will to be done on earth (Matthew 6:10), pray to avoid temptation (Mark 14:38), pray for forgiveness (Acts 8:22), pray to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15), pray to escape the violence of the end times (Luke 21:36), and pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). But too often, Christians use prayer as a cop-out to doing the work God has called them to do.

Let me clarify with an example. A minister is starting a homeless ministry and needs volunteers to help one weekend a month. She approaches a member of the laity and asks if he would be willing to help. This member is not currently serving in any other ministry and has the time, resources, and ability to serve. He knows that, as both a believer and a member of his church, he should do something to support the ministry. However, the thought of giving up a weekend to serve somehow seems a bit much. The minister then asks if he’d be willing to contribute some funds to the project instead, since there are several items still needed. He starts for his wallet, but then remembers that he planned on buying tickets to a concert later that month. So he tells the minister he won’t be able to contribute at all, but will instead pray for other people to give and volunteer. The believer goes on his way thinking he’s absolved himself of any responsibility by offering to pray over the situation.

He’s wrong.

Here’s what the Bible says:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person (1 John 3:16-17)?

“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. […] From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked (Luke 12:47-48).

I’ve heard Christians pray for some rather silly things:

“Lord, send someone to witness to my family.” (And you are…?)

“Lord, please change the atmosphere at my job.” (While being a crabby old curmudgeon all day, every day.)

“Lord, put food on this man’s table and clothes on his back.” (Climbing into their giant chrome-and-leather SUV afterward for an outing at Ruth Chris.)

Granted, if a believer lacks the resources to give or serve, it is ok (and encouraged) to pray for God’s provision. But prayer does not exempt Christians from the work God has called us to do. Jesus never asked us to pray for the needs of the needy and hurting. He asked us to meet those needs out of our own resources–the resources he has given to us–whether those needs are physical, financial, or emotional.

I can tell you honestly that I’ve gotten on my knees to pray for someone’s needs and heard God’s voice saying, “What are you doing? Do you not have money and clothes? Then why are you asking me?” If I have the resources, then the need I’m praying for is already covered.

When the lame man in Acts 3 asked the apostles Peter and John for money, they didn’t say, “Since we have none, we’ll just pray someone else comes along with it.” They knew they possessed the power to heal this man, and they did not withhold that provision from him. God is asking us to do the same.

So next time you offer to pray for someone, ask yourself, “Am I the source of God’s provision for this person? Or am I using prayer as a cop-out?”

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3 responses to “Is it a prayer or a cop-out?

  1. The “not my job spec” attitude has become quite common in our overly-specialized society.

    Cultural syncretism is not always a negative thing. We should embrace and participate in anything that is life-enhancing even when it is not overtly “Christian”; but there needs to be discernment in this matter.

    I know of few middle class Christians who realize that the decision of whether to buy a condo at the beach or donate money to a homeless shelter is a moral as well as a financial decision.

    We do not have a scarcity problem, God has abundantly provided for our needs. We have a distribution problem.

    “When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her.
    It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.” –Mother Teresa