How Not to Pray in the Face of a Natural Disaster

Today we are going to talk about how not to pray.  Our teaching exhibit comes to us courtesy of John Piper, and is called “A Prayer in the Path of Hurricanes”.

It is considered monumentally bad form to publicly critique someone else’s prayer.  But this is a public prayer posted by a public figure in a public forum as a model for how to pray in the face of a natural disaster; for these reasons public critique is perfectly appropriate and warranted.  Besides, I am a blogger.  Offering unsolicited opinions when inappropriate and unwarranted is what I do.

Now then, the prayer:

O Lord God, mighty and merciful, we are asking for mercy — mercy amid the manifestations of your great might. We are asking, for Jesus’s sake. Not because we deserve anything better than calamity. We know that we have sinned. We have exchanged the high treasure of your glory for trinkets. We have not loved you with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We have sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. We are pleading for mercy.

We make no demands. You are God, and we are not. We are bent low in submission to your just and sovereign power. Indeed, we are prostrate before the unstoppable wind of your justice and wisdom.

We know that you, O Lord, are great. Whatever you please, you do, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. You make clouds rise at the end of the earth. You bring forth the wind from its storehouses.

You have commanded and raised the mighty wind, and it has lifted up the waves of the sea. The floods have lifted up, O Lord. You have tilted the water-skins of the heavens.

You sweep us away as with a flood. You kill and you make alive; you wound and you heal; and there is none that can deliver out of your hand. You sit enthroned over the flood — enthroned as king forever.

We are like a dream, like dust swept off the street in a torrent.

But you, O God, are mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea. It is our peril and our hope that you can do all things, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

O Lord, do not sleep through this storm. O Lord, let not the flood sweep over us, or the deep swallow us up. Rise up! And do what only you can do amid these winds and waves. Rebuke them, as you once did. When they have done your wise and needed work, let them not have one minute more of strength. Command them, O Christ, to cease, we pray. And make a holy calm. For you are God, all things are your servants.

And give us ears, O God. Your voice, O Lord, is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. O God, forbid that we would not give heed.

Open our ears, you who once brought Job to humble silence, announcing from the whirlwind who you are, and that, when all is lost, the story then unfolds that in it all your purpose was compassionate and kind.

Whether we sit waste deep in the water of our Texas homes, or wait, uncertain, with blankets on a church pew, or nail the plywood to our Florida shop, or sit secure and dry a thousand miles from any sea, teach us, in mercy, what we need to learn, and cannot any other way.

And woe to us who, far away from floods, would point our finger at the sufferer and wonder at his greater sin, forgetting how the voice of Jesus rings in every tragedy: “Do you think that they were worse offenders? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” The very word of God to all Americans.

And now, O Lord, unleash the common grace of kindness from a million hearts and bank accounts, and grant as great a mercy in rebuilding as you once gave verdict to destroy. Restrain, O God, the evil hearts of those who would bring sorrow upon sorrow by looting what is left behind, or exploiting loss for private gain.

And in your church awaken this: the truth that you once gave yourself for us that we might be redeemed, not first from floods, but sin and lawlessness. That you once died, not first to put us out of peril, but to make us pure. Not first to spare us misery, but make us zealous for good deeds. And so, O mighty Christ, unleash from us another flood — the blood-bought passion of your people not for ruin, but for rebuilding lives and homes.

O Father, awaken every soul to see where we have built our lives on sand. Show us from every storm the way to build our lives on rock. Oh are you not our rock! Out fortress our deliverer, our God in whom we take refuge, our shield, and the horn of our salvation, our stronghold. How great the fall of every life built on the sand of human skill!

And yet, how great the sure and solid gift held out to everyone in Christ! For you have said more wonderfully than we can ever tell:

Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword — or wind, or waves? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through your great love for us.
For you have made us say with deep assurance: Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor hurricanes nor floods, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And all in Jesus’s name,

Amen.

First of all, it seems incredibly charitable to call this a prayer, as it is actually a sermon very thinly disguised as a prayer.

Here we see the Neo-Calvinist way of looking at things played out before us par excellence.  In this view of things, it all begins and ends with God, His greatness, and His glory.  God is fully and completely responsible for all things, good or evil–there is not a single molecule in the entire universe which moves apart from His direction (as R. C. Sproul puts it, “There are no maverick molecules”)–and there is no standard other than “what God pleases”.  Or to put it another way, whatever brings greater glory to God, whatever magnifies His greatness and glory.  As noted above, it all begins and ends with God’s greatness and glory.  God’s power and might, His greatness and glory, are such that the only proper human response is abject silence and submission.

Such a view of God and His sovereignty is much more at home in Islam than in anything even remotely resembling biblical Christianity.

The view of humanity expressed here is one of complete and utter depravity.  While the idea of total depravity is a theme throughout Christianity, in the Neo-Calvinist world this is ratcheted up several thousand notches.  Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and its consequences, all of humanity has become so utterly corrupt and loathsome to God as to be deserving of the devastation wrought by Harvey and Irma.  It’s worse than that, actually:  We are all deserving of the worst kind of death imaginable followed by an eternity of conscious torment.  Anything less than this, shown to just one out of the billions of humans who have ever lived, is nothing less than the most extraordinary act of mercy on God’s part.  What can I say of a theological framework which permits one to view this devastation as the “wise and needed work” of God?

Such a view of humanity and of God’s mercy has more in common with Islam than anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.

Pastoral sensitivity?  Not here, my friend.  All this devastation was wrought by God to teach us lessons and it is our job to learn those lessons, for there are some lessons which cannot be learned any other way.  Not above using Luke 13 to take a cheap evangelistic shot at any who think that something like this can’t possibly happen to them.  It can and it will so you’d better repent before it’s too late.

Of course there is the altar call at the end; no sermon or sermon-disguised-as-a-prayer would be complete without that.  When it comes to evangelism, you should never let a good human tragedy go to waste.  After all, what is human suffering compared to advancing the kingdom of God?  This makes perfect sense in a theological framework where it all begins and ends with God and His greatness and glory.

For the coup de grace, Piper closes the deal by taking us to the closing lines of Romans 8, one of the greatest Scriptural passages of all.  But to revel in the love of Christ at a time when we should be expressing it through silence, humble service, and presence with those impacted by these devastating events–that is simply tone-deaf.

John Piper has not been known to let a natural disaster pass without availing himself of the opportunity to promote his Neo-Calvinistic way of looking at things, in which all such tragedies fit neatly within a theological framework which begins and ends with the glory of God.  Sure enough, he came through like a champion with this prayer.

This is simply not the way to pray in the face of natural disaster and human suffering.  Real people, real loss, real human suffering are reduced to nothing more than bullet points in a theological system:  the expression of God’s power and glory, our deserved lot before an all-powerful and mighty God whom we have offended, a teaching moment to catalyze repentance and drive evangelism.

Think about this through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  If you can make a case that what love requires of you in this moment is to pray like this…nope.  There is no such case to be made.  This is simply not the way to pray in a moment like this.

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