By Tom Ehrich
As we are seeing once again in the aftermath of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA, prayer without action is shallow and passive, and action without prayer is shallow and aggressive.
Even worse is when people seeking attention loudly announce their prayers and then do nothing. That is merely self-serving. It's like the emptiness when someone says, "Call me if you need me," and then walks away.
We need God to know our hearts (prayer) and to guide our steps (action).
Without grounding in God -- in a relationship with God, in knowing God and being known by God, that is to say, in the work of prayer -- any action we take in a crisis can take us far from what God wants. We can lash out, demonize, distort and destroy, all of which the action-minded are doing right now. The action-without-prayer orientation, moreover, tends to simplify situations to the level where a single decisive action is considered sufficient.
Without a bias toward action -- doing something to make a difference, helping someone, standing for justice, changing one's own life -- prayer can make one feel good but not require any of what God wants from us. The Gospel is action-oriented -- go, come, give, love, serve. It isn't an attitude. The prayer-without-action orientation tends to paint situations as hopeless, too complex for anything but the mind of God to comprehend, and all we can do is shrink in fear.
The issue, of course, is having the courage to stand in the breach, to stay with the victim, to follow through on promises, and to see what patterns need to change in order for situations to get better. That courage doesn't come from action. It comes from prayer. If those who went public with prayer plans actually did pray and seek God's guidance, they would have far more courage than what they have shown thus far. Noise isn't courage. Bluster isn't courage. Outrage isn't courage.
Prayer-plus-action doesn't necessarily mean we will agree. We all speak to God with different voices and hear God's response in different ways. Why else would we have over 1,500 Christian denominations in the US, plus multiple traditions within Judaism and Islam? When it comes time to act, we all face a temptation: to hear God saying what we already wanted God to say. We have an action in mind, and we prayerfully baptize it.
No surefire solutions here. It does help to know, though. that our minds and behaviors are likely to be flawed, and therefore we should be humble about them.