On November 5, a little over two weeks ago as of this writing, a man named Devin Kelley walked into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and proceeded to murder almost half of the congregation. Of the 50 attendees of that church, he killed 24 of them. When this happened, I was worshiping with my own church in Denton, about five hours north, and the horror of the tragedy struck close to my heart. Not because I was afraid someone was going to appear at our door next, though that thought certainly did cross my mind, but because of the immense pain that such wickedness brings to God’s people. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints,” and certainly many precious lives were lost that day, even as they were welcomed into glory.
The response of those around me was the response that any Christian should have to such acts: to cry out to our Father in grief, in seeking justice, and in need of the strength and wisdom to move to action. Yet just as quickly as Christians moved to pray, the response that has been growing louder to that in popular culture came: sneering responses of “instead of just praying, why don’t you actually trying doing something.” “I’m sick of thoughts and prayers.” And so forth.
Life and death in Christ
The man who murdered those people took their lives, but he could never take them away from their Lord. And a Christian who goes to God in prayer is not sitting in inaction, but is in fact performing the most important and primary action anyone who truly believes in Jesus as Lord should follow: going to God for direction, for strength, and for a reminder of Who truly rules even over the tragedies, Who will achieve His great purpose even when and even through man’s wicked acts, because no one can escape the will and design of God. I wrote to my church in a request for prayer that day for FBC Sutherland Springs:
This is such a dark and wicked act, it is hard to think about how to react. Anger and sadness both seem appropriate. But I wanted to post this here and ask for prayer, and take a moment to talk about prayer in particular. I am not a pastor or elder, but I don’t believe I am out of line to say that prayer is one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of the Christian. The world sees “thoughts and prayers” and sneers at what they believe is inaction, but in fact we have taken one of the greatest actions a believer can take: going into the throne room of God and asking Him for intervention, for protection, for strength to act and wisdom to know how.
I hope we can all take time to pray for the people of this town, with 400 people living there and a church of 50 who just had almost half of those lost. Prayer is not inaction, it is a deep and meaningful act Christians take to call upon the name of the Lord and seek the good mercies He pours out upon His children even in times of turmoil and hardship.
Doing all things
One of the most misused verses in the Bible is Philippians 4:13. We’ve all seen it plastered on motivational posters, athletic t-shirts, and all kinds of places with the completely wrong understanding of what is being said. We tend to take it in a “Yeah, you can do it, you can achieve anything!” sort of way. Paul, however, is not using it in a “rah rah, let’s go team” sense. He is giving thanks to the church of Philippi for their prayers, because it was those prayers which cried out to God to give Paul strength to endure much suffering, and it was through those prayers that God ministered to the hearts of both the apostle and the church.
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.–Philippians 4:10-13
No matter what the world may believe about prayer, about the power of God shown in weakness, we the church must persist. I must persist, even as I am weak in my pursuit of holiness. We must persist in seeking after the Lord, because in that we are putting our hands to the plow and stirring up the soil. And when we are done praying, we must stand up, and go out into the world and serve, and love, and minister to the broken and downtrodden.
This is what frustrates me so much about the thoughts and behaviors that tend to typify American evangelicalism, because so much of it involves running from the world around us and hating it, not in a “I hate sin and how it destroys my life and therefore I will preach the gospel” way, but in a “I am more righteous than the world and don’t want to get my precious hands dirty touching it” way. The former brings a drive to serve and love your neighbor. The latter causes you to hate and hide from your neighbor.
I encourage you to hear the words of Charles Spurgeon, and cry out to God every day, whenever it comes into your mind, to strengthen the church, to feed His sheep, and to lead us to righteousness. I ask you, my brothers and sisters, to obey Jesus in making Him first and foremost in your minds as you seek for answers to tragedy in a dark and sinful world. And I encourage you: no matter what it is that you are facing, do not let yourself become discouraged, nor let yourself grow idle. Walk through all of life looking to the cross of Christ knowing that He is the one all things come from, and to whom all things point.