Pray during times of tragedy
Genesis 18:20-32 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[a] 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare[b] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
How many more shootings, attacks, and injustices does it take before tragedies stop being tragic?
Honestly, I’m frustrated. And perhaps you are, too. Frustrated that innocent people are having their lives snuffed out by pure evil. Police officers are the targets for snipers and other mass shooters. Rioting and protests in the streets. Florida night clubs being blown up. Terrorists using a truck to mow down civilians on the streets of France.
Just as it seems that our outrage and mourning over one tragedy begins to subside, the next tragedy hits.
And these are just the global tragedies. What about the tragedies that never make national news? Things like Grandma finally beating a two-year battle with cancer only to have it return like wildfire in a month and a half. Things like losing your career, sense of accomplishment, and income stream in one conversation. Things like a marriage ending. Things like watching a son or daughter make choice after choice that ruins his or her life and faith and not being able to do anything about it.
It gets exhausting. Each tragedy we process takes energy and emotional endurance to work through. Each drains us of our compassion, and we hope that we have enough time to be filled up before the next one hits.
We feel like David when he wrote Psalm 6, which we sang this morning. His words are often our words, “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6:6).
These tragedies – one right after the other – can either drive us to despair of our God or drive us to our knees in prayer to our God.
So, where do we turn in times of tragedy? What do we do when the next global or national tragedy strikes? What is the next step when personal tragedy hits home again?
We turn to the same place that Jesus turned. He taught us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). We do the same thing St. James encourages us to do when tragedy strikes: “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray” (James 5:13). We take the next step closer to God in prayer, just as Abraham did.
Tragedy was coming upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was not unexpected. God told Abraham that it was going to happen. And God told Abraham why it was going to happen. “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous …”
The tragedy that struck the Old Testament cities of Sodom and Gomorrah was self-inflicted. Their great wickedness had come up before God. They were active in homosexuality and other deviant sexual behavior. They had turned against the Lord and had no desire to follow the Lord. The Lord had enough and was going to destroy the city with fire from heaven (Genesis 19).
The Lord physically visited Abraham, a faithful follower of the Lord. While there, He announced His intentions to destroy the city because of its sin and wickedness. He sent two angels disguised as men to check out the city before its destruction.
The only problem was that Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family lived in Sodom. Abraham pleaded, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham then negotiated from 50 to 10. If the Lord found 10 righteous people, he would spare the entire city for the sake of the righteous few.
But can you believe it, the Lord couldn’t find even 10 righteous people within a city so given over to corruption and evil. So the city was destroyed by burning sulfur that rained down from heaven.
It seems like Abraham’s prayer went unanswered. … Except it didn’t. Abraham prayed that Sodom would be spared because he thought that was the only way that Lot could be spared. But that’s why God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts greater than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). God was able to save Lot and his two daughters, while at the same time destroying Sodom and Gomorrah as a direct result of their great wickedness.
Perhaps we would be more consistent and persistent in our prayers if we could visibly converse with God as Abraham did. But of all the losses that the human race sustained when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, one of the most grievous was the loss of direct and immediate contact with God.
When these global and personal tragedies strike, it can often seem as if God is very remote or not there at all. Pink Floyd has a line in one of their songs, “Is there anybody out there?” In our darker moments of weakness and despair, have we given in to the fear that nobody was listening to our cries for help?
God no longer physically walks the earth as He did in the person of Jesus Christ, but He is always present in many ways – though we may not see Him. Jesus promises, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). The same God who entered our world of death and tragedy is the same God who endured death and tragedy on the cross. He promises, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
This is love. Love never abandons. Love is always present. Always active. God interacted with His first people by walking and talking with them in the Garden of Eden. When they created a chasm of sin, it separated God from His creation. But God crossed that chasm in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Love found a way! We see just how far God’s love can go at the cross. There God’s love yearned so strongly for that unity with His creation once again that He removed the sin that separated humans from Him. But that came at the great cost of His own Son’s life.
Tragedies don’t mean that God has stopped loving us. All tragedies mean is that the world we live in is exactly what God said it would be after the fall – a world tainted by sin. Sin in the world means that the world doesn’t always work the way it was designed to work. Sin in people means that they don’t act the way they should. It’s when sin overwhelms a person’s heart or mind that tragedy happens.
But even in this darkness, God’s love shines brightly.
That love shines brightest in the midst of the darkness of tragedy. During times of personal and global tragedy … pray. Pray not so much for answers. Don’t pray that you are able to see a reason behind your cancer or try to understand why someone would commit mass murder. Instead, just pour out your heart to God.
Learn from Abraham to be bold and persistent in prayer.
Learn from Jesus to go off into a solitary place often to speak to your heavenly Father.
Learn from David to empty your heart and mind of everything that weighs so heavily upon them.
Learn from James that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:13).
The Lord invites us, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will honor me” (Psalm 50:15). Do you want to worry less? Then pray more!
Rather than look forward in fear or worry, look to God. Jesus taught people that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. Jesus uses the example of going to a friend’s home at midnight requesting three loaves of bread to feed a guest who arrived unexpectedly. The homeowner finally gives in to the request because of the persistence of the friend at the door. Persistence pays off. If a human friend is moved to respond by persistent prayer, how much more likely that our heavenly Father will respond when we come to Him again and again with our needs. Our asking, seeking, and knocking will not be in vain. “Yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (Luke 11:8).
St. Paul told believers, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2). St. James encouraged, “Are any among you suffering? Keep on praying about it!”
Regarding prayer, the Bible never blushes. Rather than worry about anything, “pray about everything!” Everything? Diaper changes and dates. Business meetings and stopped up bathtubs. Schedules and flight delays. Children and grandparents. Pray about everything!
Just keep talking to God. You can talk to God because God listens. Your voice matters in heaven. God takes you very seriously. Even if you stammer or stumble, God hears. Even if what you have to say impresses no one, it impresses God. He listens to the painful plea of the elderly in the rest home. He listens to the gruff confession of the death-row inmate. When the alcoholic begs for mercy, when the spouse seeks guidance, when the businessman steps off the street into the chapel, God listens.
Your prayer on earth activates God’s power in heaven. That’s what it means when we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Actions in heaven begin when you pray here on earth. Isn’t that amazing! That is the power of prayer.
St. John gives us this encouragement about prayer: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).
Charlie was a teenage boy who was tired of reading bedtime stories to his little sister every night. He was quite pleased with himself when he came up with the idea of recording several of her favorite stories onto her i-Pad. He told her, “Now you can hear stories anytime you want. Don’t you think that’s a great idea?”
His bubble was deflated when his sister looked at the machine for a moment and replied, “But I want to hear my stories from somebody who has a lap. The i-Pad doesn’t have a lap.”
When we talk about God, we often think of Him in terms of being all powerful or all-knowing. We sometimes forget that even though God is a Spirit, He has a lap. He is ready to personally listen to us anytime we wish. In fact, He is far more ready to listen to us than we are to talk to Him.
Unlike the brother in the story, God doesn’t get tired of listening to the prayers of His people. He doesn’t get weary of talking to us in His Word.
Indeed, because of His Son who has saved us, God is always with us, always loving us, always listening for our heartfelt prayers. Speak to God in prayer. Not looking for answers. Not requesting solutions. Just pouring out your hearts; dumping your sins on Him; shedding your tears; recounting your joys. Remember, God has a lap. During times of personal and global tragedies, it is a good idea to crawl up there and talk to Him several times a day. Amen.