[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
by Scott Williams
Helpless as at least 12,000 barrels of oil continue to spill into the ocean each day with no end in sight.
Helpless as massive oil plumes harm and kill creatures in the ocean.
Helpless as oil washes onto beaches, marshes, and wetlands.
In the face of this awful tragedy, I am utterly helpless.
As I watch images of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill–of oil spilling out at an alarming rate and of the damage already caused–I can’t help but feel overwhelmed and underprepared. What do we do? What can we do? For so many of us, there is absolutely nothing we can do about this catastrophe. We are utterly helpless!
But perhaps it is in our helplessness that we can truly make a difference.
At such a time as this we have three choices. First, we can ignore the situation, though this is really no choice at all. Second, we can despair at our misfortune and inability to change things. Third, we can turn to God in prayer.
But in the midst of such a disaster, how can we have any confidence in prayer? Is it even worth our time? Will it make any difference at all?
Having launched Oil Spill Prayer, an initiative to unite Christians in prayer for the effects of the oil spill, I have been wrestling with many of these questions lately. Confronted by the naysayers who claim that our prayer is worthless, I have had to look hard at these things. Can I pray with any level of confidence or am I just wishing for a positive outcome?
During this time, I have found the Psalms to be incredibly instructive for prayer. Please consider Psalm 85 with me and see what this particular psalm can teach us about prayer in the face of challenging circumstances.
1 LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. 2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Selah 3 You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger. 4 Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us. 5 Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? 6 Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you? 7 Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. 8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. 9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. 12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. 13 Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
In the first section of this psalm (verses 1-3) we see YHWH’s past actions in the life of Israel. As we read about restoration and forgiveness, we must ask, “which time?” Indeed it is unclear which time the psalmist refers to here. I suppose that is intentional, emphasizing the number and significance of the Lord’s past actions. As we read this we must keep Israel’s corporate identity in mind. That is to say, what happened to previous generations also was considered to have happened to the current generation (consider Joshua 24:17 for example). You see, what God has done in our community, past or present, He has done for me. Therefore, you and I can celebrate the great acts of our Lord as if done directly for us.
In the second section (verses 4-7), we see the psalmist pleading to God. Note that the plea does not come first. Rather, the focus is on who YHWH is and what He has done. Even here, the subject is the Lord. Now it is fascinating to see how the psalmist prays. Here, the psalmist prays back God’s character to Him. Put differently, as God has claimed Himself to be a God of covenant faithfulness (often translated “steadfast love”), Israel now calls upon Him to be the God He said He would be. The psalmist uses language from God’s own mouth and insists that YHWH can be no other God. So where the Lord has claimed to be a God of faithfulness, righteousness, and steadfast love, the one praying calls out to Him and commands that He be that same God. What a powerful way to pray! This is not begging. This is not pleading. This is not wishing. This is demanding.
The psalmist displays his confidence in the final section (verses 8-13). He can pray with confidence because of who the LORD has been, is, and will be. Because the Lord claimed to be faithful and has shown Himself to be faithful in the past, now we can trust that He will continue to be so in the situations we find ourselves in. This has nothing to do with ourselves or our “ability” at prayer. This has everything to do with the God to whom we pray–the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Redeemer.
Prayer leads to action
Now this does not mean that this is the perfect or only model for prayer. This psalm is not formulaic. In fact, in the very next
psalm we see a different pattern. However, the themes of confidence in prayer and praying back God’s character to Him are found throughout the Psalms. Our confidence does not come from the formula but from Him to whom we address the prayer. Neither does this mean that we get whatever we want. We are calling God to act according to His character, not to act like a genie in a bottle.
Here is what this does mean: In our helplessness and desperation, we must turn to God. Then we put our focus on Him, call on Him to be the faithful God He promised to be, and walk confidently knowing that He will be faithful and His will shall be done.
It is at the point of helplessness that we can truly make a difference, but not because we hold the key to any power. In fact, we are admitting we are helpless. No, we can make a difference because we are relying upon the most real, the most true, the most potent source of power–the Lord.
Now this does not exempt us from action. A sincere prayer will bring about transformation and action with us. I love this quote by Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing: “To pray as a Christian demands concrete involvement in trying to bring about what is pleaded for in the prayer.” How could I possibly come to the Lord day after day about the oil spill without having my life transformed? While the sovereignty, power, and control remain with God, the call to “follow me” is not negated. Prayer centers us on God, gives us hope, and transforms us.
When we find ourselves in the most dire circumstances–surrounded by poverty, need, disease, death, destruction, chaos, hurt, broken lives, broken relationships, and a broken creation–we call upon the God who has proclaimed Himself to be merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in covenant loyalty and faithfulness, forgiving, loving, living, redeeming, restoring, and active in our lives. And that God–who has proved Himself time and again to the people of Israel, to the New Testament churches, to subsequent generations, to you and your family, and to me and mine–is listening, is moving, and will prove Himself to be faithful once again.
Perhaps we are helpless, but our God certainly isn’t.
Scott Williams is the executive director of Creation Hope, a Christian organization that seeks to educate and mobilize Christians to care for God’s creation and bring hope to a broken world. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. At his church he leads the garden for the community, which grows and distributes fresh, organic produce for the needy in the community. He and his wife live in California with their wonderful daughter.