The last thing Ukraine needs is prayer

Prayer has no effect on reality, and Jesus isn’t returning our calls. Ukraine needs help, but it needs tangible help, not make-believe help.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Pray for Ukraine” as a search phrase returns six million pages. One of those sites tells us how to fix Ukraine:

Want to change the world? Pray.

Let’s think about this. Ukraine is in trouble, and the most potent thing you can do is to nudge the Creator of the universe to do something about it. That sounds great if true, but are even Christians entitled to think that it works like this?

How does prayer work?

If you’ve puzzled at all about how prayer is supposed to work, you’ll have already thought of some of these problems.

  • God already knows everything. Your prayer can’t inform God of anything since he already knows it all.
  • Changing God’s mind. You can’t imagine that your petty suggestions could change God mind, or ought to. Your advising God is like a two-year-old advising the president. If God has a plan, it’s best that he stick with it and ignore your chatter.
  • Children and prayer. Encouraging a child to pray is like leaving a loaded gun on the kitchen counter. If prayer directs the actions of the most powerful force in the universe, it should be accessible only by responsible adults.
  • Gratitude for unfairness. What sense does it make to thank God for dinner when he didn’t provide food to the tens of thousands of people who starved today? Thanking God means that you approve the status quo.
  • God’s effort. We humans tend to see a spectrum of prayer requests. A good parking space is a small ask, and resurrecting someone who died in a car accident is a big ask. But for the God who spoke the universe into existence, they’re equally easy to provide. He could solve the Ukraine problem or undo the millions of deaths from Covid or even give us a new planet at no cost to him of material or effort.
  • “Pray without ceasing.” The nuns at a Franciscan convent in Wisconsin have been praying nonstop since 1878. That apparently hasn’t been in line with God’s Plan, because the number of nuns is dwindling. They now must recruit lay volunteers to help pray.
  • Jesus prayer illogic. Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). This is what an ordinary man would say at the precipice of a terrible ordeal. But, at least according to the story, Jesus was no ordinary man. He was one person of a single Godhead. The Trinity had a flawless plan, and Jesus knew what it was. If the best course of action was “[Let your will] be done,” why request otherwise?

(Aside: the secular answer to that question neatly cuts the Gordian Knot. There is no Trinity in the gospels. It was invented centuries later, and it fits poorly into the Bible.)

Prayer is medicine only if that medicine is homeopathic.

A Christian perspective

Christian apologist Greg Koukl is admirably frank about Christians’ puzzlement about how prayer is supposed to work. In a recent podcast, he admitted, “Prayer is a confusing enterprise for me.”

How many times you have to pray, how long you have to pray, with what kind of intensity, how many people—what if you have a thousand people praying for a minute, is that the same as one person praying for a thousand minutes? I can’t figure that out. (@6:35)

He focuses on what he can understand, such as “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2).

Prayer in practice

But that ignores the Jesus’s repeated teachings on prayer.

  • Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
  • Jesus said, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24).
  • Jesus said, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14).
  • Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22).

Why does Koukl single out the James passage and ignore what Jesus himself said? Because that destroys the edifice. Jesus made clear that prayer should be more reliable than a light switch, but if anyone knows that Jesus’s claims for prayer are false, it’s those who pray!

(Aside: how could Jesus make such unsupportable claims about prayer? Centuries of prayer to Jesus being no more effective than prayer to a jug of milk would surely look bad. But see Jesus as an Apocalyptic prophet, with the end of the Age coming in just months or a few years. Excuses would be more believable during such a short timeframe.)

Everyone knows that prayer doesn’t work as Jesus promised. There have even been studies that reach the same conclusion.

Back to Ukraine

This is when an apologist often appeals to a “mature faith.” The Christian with a mature faith knows that prayer doesn’t work the way Jesus promised (but has the delicacy not to say so).

We see this “mature” faith when the Christian throws in the towel on the actual problem (in this case, asking God to stop the war in Ukraine) and instead prays that Jesus gets the glory, that more people accept Jesus as a result of the war, and so on as if “Don’t forget to give all glory to Jesus!” were a helpful reminder to God.

Another clumsy save is, “God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is No.” Nonsense. Jesus is clear about how prayer works. So either put all your chips on Jesus and go all in on prayer, like he told you to, or understand that there’s no one on the other end of the line but you.

Prayer is the worst thing you can do

Prayer would be bad enough if it were only useless. But praying a quick, “God, please help those poor people” drains away the anxiety you feel after hearing about some calamity. Yes, that anxiety is unpleasant, but it lights a fire under you to do something. In the case of Ukraine, that might be donating to a nonprofit that does good work in international diplomacy. Closer to home, it might be as simple as taking a lasagna to a neighbor recently diagnosed with cancer.

This applies to politicians as well. They can assure us that an issue is in their thoughts and prayers, but that’s as useful as clicking a Like button. “Thoughts and prayers” are much easier than responding to a shooting by passing practical gun control legislation or responding to a hurricane or flood with measures to moderate our effect on the climate.

Thoughts and prayers are a platitude that might do when the stakes aren’t high—when someone was insulted, or they were had a fender bender. This is a soothing placebo, but God is obviously not answering our calls. If something must be done, it is up to us.

Conclusion

Praying Christians: given God’s lack of response, you obviously care a lot more for Ukraine than he does.

Prayer’s benefit is that it makes the praying person feel better. It’s like meditation, and you can pretend to offload your burdens onto Jesus. The problem is that next time you check, they’re still there.

Prayer may be meditative, but that’s not what Jesus promised. When you pray for someone, the point is that that person’s condition should improve, not that you should feel better. Prayer is medicine only if that medicine is homeopathic.

Are you anxious about Ukraine? About checking Putin’s overreach? About the misery felt by the citizens of Ukraine? Then educate yourself on the policy issues and share your conclusions with your representatives or even just your friends. Or educate yourself on the humanitarian issues and find a good nonprofit to fund.

But don’t pray. It’s worse than nothing.

God isn’t a vending machine,
he’s a slot machine.
— commenter Hector Jones

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...