The Witness

When Prayer Doesn’t Work

Taelor Gray

Our Western/American culture can often be characterized by suffocating anxiety. We don’t have to look far to find things that frighten, depress, or infuriate us. These constant factors can contribute to a steady diet of intense stress and an unrelenting state of worry.

If this is normative for our broader American culture, there is an exponentially higher experience of anxiety for black Americans. Our history informs our anxiety, our present informs our anxiety, and for many, the future informs our anxiety. Our overall state in this society has never been peace of mind, only conflict, distrust, and fear. Some would even say that over time our very physical biology has been affected. Common health complications of black people can be attributed to the high-stress experience of simply being black in America (hypertension, congestive heart failure etc).

When you live under the conditions of conflict, distrust, and fear for long, anxiety can inform regular interactions with society. You could develop a cynical view of our circumstances, using apathy as a coping mechanism just to make it through. One could also use anxiety to drive a hyper-resolve, pushing against negative outcomes with the weight of the entire community on their shoulders.

Still, there’s one type of expression of anxiety I often see more than anything else—anger. Taking a magnifying glass to the causes of black anxiety could often leave one feeling anywhere from frustrated to furious.

As James Baldwin once said, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”

This is a painfully profound statement. There are realities we face that often spark a quiet rage. We either choose to suppress it or regularly express it. If our heightened anxiety is normative and our rage is constant, the range of expression looks different, but it will be expressed nevertheless.

Take it to the Lord in Prayer?

The remedy often offered to anxiety and/or anger, especially according to black church tradition, is prayer. For many, it is sufficient to simply define prayer as the means of talking to God. As a viable response to a constant state of anger, prayer (defined in this way) serves as a familiar source of enduring the realities we face.

When national tragedies and crises abound, the familiar counsel of prayer becomes the face of existential solution-seeking when practical solutions are few. This is the case for all colors and creeds. The presence of a higher power becomes a comfort when we feel most powerless.

However, my observation is that many black people have become tired of prayer. The modern sentiments toward prayer seem to question the value of prayer as a response to the conditions black people face in this country. As the news’ headlines and country leaders fuel the fires of racial conflict in our country, for many, “prayer” seems too passive a form of engagement to grapple with the reality of our circumstances. When an incident of racially charged injustice is reported, many express feelings ranging from cynicism to disgust when the need for prayer is mentioned.

As we delve further into the newest age of progressive black thought, the act of prayer seems to be tacitly acknowledged as antiquated, applicable to yesteryear rather than an active force toward improved outcomes for today. In short, prayer seems to be viewed as inaction rather than an active part of the solution.

“Prayer is Important But…”

The language around this sentiment seems to also permeate amongst Christians. There is growing internal tension in the Church when investigating the practical viability of prayer. Black Christian intellectuals often reluctantly acknowledge the presence of prayer in the significant black movements throughout history—as if to at least pay homage to a time where prayer was more effective. The famous qualifier “Yes, prayer is important, but…” seems to become regular in discussions about seeking substantive progress in the social movements of the day. However, the subtle message ends up being that prayer doesn’t work.

There are several straw man arguments at work in our modern engagement with prayer and efforts toward social justice.

  • The notion that prayer is only a means of talking to God is incomplete.

If you feel the only value of prayer is asking God for help, pleading with him to provide strength, and telling him about your struggles, your view of prayer lacks theological fortitude. Prayer is also a means of God communicating with us. If your posture of prayer primarily focuses on God responding to your needs, you can lose touch with the posture that prepares us to respond to what he commands.

The James 1:19 text is often hijacked to speak about interpersonal human relationships/conflicts, but the context starts at verse 16 as an exhortation to listen to God. Being quick to hear, slow to speak is a posture of trusting in his will over our own, and the next verse (20) speaks to our anger compared to his righteousness. His words to us in prayer will reinforce what he has said through the inspired words of Scripture.

We should be reminded of his response to anxiety in Philippians 4:6-7. His peace is tangible communication to us about who he is. The words of Scripture are not constrained by our timelines or our sense of urgency. If we are not careful, we may actually take a posture of presumption rather than faith. The news’ headlines don’t move God. We must take care that we posture ourselves to listen and discern what the Spirit is saying to us in these times.

  • We must denounce the false dichotomy between prayer and meaningful action.

Prayer is meaningful action. In its expression of faith, it actually informs the next steps we take. If we pay close attention to the black social movements which included Christian leaders, prayer was incorporated as a means to inform their efforts. Lewis Baldwin, a black Historian, cited King’s prayers as a major means of pushing the Civil Rights efforts forward. In his book, “Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.”, Lewis says:

“King also referred to the civil rights movement as a ‘Christian social movement’…a crusade rooted in ‘spiritual and moral forces.” He always understood the movement in spiritual as well as social terms, and prayer was as important for him as creative nonviolent activism.”

We should be careful to assign prayer an integral part of determining our engagement with the social causes of the day. It is problematic when prayer is treated as an isolated methodology for critique, rather than the lifeblood of all that we could accomplish.

  • We shouldn’t presume upon the realities of our own prayer lives.

Dismissing prayer’s primacy implies we have actually spent hours pleading with God and have now credibly concluded that prayer doesn’t work. Most professing Christians will flatly tell you that they don’t pray enough—yet we presume on prayer’s potency. We’re better off admitting that we haven’t begun to tap into the Christian vitality of faithful prayer before we critique its viability.

Prayer is the antithesis of today’s tendencies toward knee-jerk commentary and half-baked emotional responses. While the leading contemporaries of modern black thought are dissecting and disparaging the place of prayer, the saints of the living God should be championing it—fully displaying its fruits in our actions, empowered by Holy Spirit confidence that our labors in the Lord are not in vain.

Far be it from me to chide against the time spent by the black church mothers, who in my tradition would literally wail before the Lord for long hours according to their faith. I believe those prayers were heard and answered for generations of people. Who are we to count this as pointless? Let us fall in with such a rich tradition of faith and finally tap into the Source of all fruitful redemptive efforts in our society.

2 thoughts on “When Prayer Doesn’t Work

  1. Gilbert Baker

    That was excellent my brother,how can I get your music

  2. Tonya Mead

    Thanks for this insightful article. I hope we don’t lose sight of the power of prayer and faith in our lives. I think one reason why Blacks have lost more than half of our financial wealth from 2006 to 2011 is because we bought into the mainstream pop culture of our time (bigger houses/cars are better). Economists predict that in 7 years we will lose an additional 30% in net worth. Further, by 2053 the average Black American will have accumulated $0 assets. The only reason I mention this is that it will take prayer and faith (along with positive right action) to get us out of poverty and living paycheck to paycheck. I have written Extreme: Are you Woke Yet? Awaken from your Slumbers and Rise on Your Wings to present faith-based strategies to financial independence. Thanks for this article. Prayer does work. It works when we least expect it and oftentimes doesn’t meet our own expectations– but supplies us with what we need.

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