It’s just too much. You have probably said this to yourself at one point when you have read the news or heard of the suffering of a family member. As you continue to hear stories of police brutality toward unarmed Black men, children separated from families at the border, hate crimes toward our LGBTQ siblings, floodings in Kerala, Christians being persecuted around the world, and the list goes on . . . you think to yourself, How can my heart hold all of these things at one time? Perhaps you are deeply suffering yourself and the stories you hear on the news are not just stories . . . they are your story. Or maybe you feel like bad things are happening faster than you can keep up, and your compassion quickly gets overridden by a desire to stay “woke” enough to keep up in intellectual conversation.
For some, this inundation of bad news causes you to get so deflated that you stop believing justice could ever come. You bury your emotions with shrugs of, “What else is new?” For others, your capacity to care about those who are suffering goes only as far as what’s currently trending on your newsfeed. And the oppressed, to whom God gave his life and kingdom, are forgotten under the name of “old news.”
God does not stop hearing the cries of the afflicted when our news feed changes topic. Black lives matter today as much as they did five years ago and five hundred years ago. Refugees will always be close to God’s heart, whether the government embraces them or not. God’s command to “administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another” and to “not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” (Zechariah 7:9-10 NIV) does not budge when we we max out our capacity to hear more stories of suffering.
So how do we stop letting our newsfeed dictate the things we care about and actually pursue God’s biblical justice for the long haul? How do we stop downplaying real suffering as just “the latest issue” or as something too painful to even know how to engage? How do we let God expand our capacity to love, such that our whole lives are immersed in the suffering of others and hope is able to persevere?
The answer is in our prayer lives.
I remember asking my grandma, who was very close to God, what she prayed for. She replied, “The whole world.” “How can you pray for the whole world?” I asked her. “If you ask God what to pray for, he will tell you,” she responded.
My grandma, who suffered from 13 years of mysterious physical pain, didn’t have a Twitter account, a community of scholars, or a strong memory, and yet, she cared about the whole world. And she cared because she prayed. Only prayer can do this. Only in prayer can we accept our finite ability to make lasting change. Only in prayer can we stop relying on our own compassion and our own knowledge to lead us to action. Only in prayer do we have access to the one who hears every cry and knows every oppressive force. Only in prayer are we able to remember those who have left the media spotlight, but whose cries of desperation are still live. Only in prayer do we find enough courage to obey God’s commands to love the foreigner and the poor. Only in prayer does our compassion expand to be able to care about the whole world. Only in prayer is there lasting change.
One might object that prayer can be used as an escape from doing good. I have sat in many college prayer meetings that were much less about moving us to action and more like places of refuge from having to actually go meet our neighbors. But this is not how prayer should be. When we really meet with God and ask him what is on his heart, we become more aware of our neighbors, more attuned to their suffering, and more courageous to seek their welfare. Prayer becomes the very vehicle that allows us to love beyond our human capacity.
How do we grow a prayer life like this? What do we do if we’re not at grandma-status yet of wanting to pray for the whole world? How do we not give up when we don’t see an answer coming anytime soon or when our list of things to pray for seems longer than our hearts can handle?
You cannot keep stuffing pain inside if you never let it out. Lament is a form of prayer that allows you to release. The more you release pain back to God, the more your capacity grows to feel pain on behalf of other people too. Don’t just read the news and let the weight of it sit inside of you. Cry out to God for help. Find a smaller group of friends that you trust and find regular spaces to lament what’s happening in your own life and what is happening in the world. We all need to linger in lament longer than we feel comfortable. If you are personally affected by injustices, you need the space to just be with God and be raw with him. If you’re wanting to grow your capacity to care for others, stay in lament even after your understanding runs out, and God will help you feel his own heart of compassion.
2. Pray specifically.
I was on the directors team for the Los Angeles Urban Program (LAUP) this summer. The vision of the program is to “raise up a generation of Christians who know and live out God’s heart for justice.” About halfway through the program we realized that there was something lacking in our prayer meetings. Students weren’t connecting personally to what they were praying for and their prayers sounded more like a boring list of impossible chores: “God, stop homelessness. Fix our immigration system. End racism . . . [heavy sigh].” But then we asked them to pray more specifically. Suddenly their prayers became alive: “Jesus, help Karla understand math better; she’s trying so hard. Give Jasmine a place to live tonight, please, God. Give Marco’s family asylum; they have nowhere else to go . . .” Their hearts started to connect and then when they prayed for God to bring long-term change to systemic problems, they had real people in their minds who were affected by those systems.
When we pray specifically, our hearts connect to what we’re asking for, our desire for God grows, we get closer to his heart, and our prayers become more effective. Specificity also validates the suffering of others and protects against over-generalized prayers that could suggest all pain is created equal (my stubbed toe is not the same as someone having a father in prison, for example). This type of specificity requires having real relationship with those that are suffering, such that we aren’t just naming their pain in prayer, but are praying with genuine empathy.
3. Look for God’s swift justice.
One of our teams this summer was working with an organization called Guardian Angels. Every day they sat in immigration courtrooms and prayed for the people who were seeking asylum and for the judges to treat them fairly. Initially this team was really discouraged. They saw so many heartbreaking cases of people being deported. But then as they continued to pray, they began to see the impossible happen. Judges started to ask more questions than normal. Stories were unearthed in the midst of difficult language and cultural barriers. They saw four different youth granted asylum in one day. “I didn’t know days like this could happen,” one of our staff told me.
As a part of our program, our team studied the parable of the persistent widow, in Luke 18. Jesus says in verses 7 and 8, “Will not God grant justice to His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay helping them? I tell you that He will swiftly grant them justice” (HCSB).
Justice is a long-term vision, and yet God says he’s bringing it swiftly. As we pray, we must look for the ways he’s answering, especially when our prayers are bold. When we pray specifically and regularly, we will have days like the LAUP team did in the courthouse and we will remember that God is real and he’s coming swiftly.
4. Remember those before you and those after you.
A friend of mine who was a missionary in the Middle East came to my campus to encourage students in evangelism, and used the illustration of living bridges in Northeast India. These bridges are made of living trees and cannot be completed in one lifetime, as the trees grow over a span of 500 years or more. So when the people there spend their lives working on these bridges, they do not reap any benefit for themselves. They are building for the sake of their children’s children. The missionary told my students that she didn’t put her hope in what God would do while she lived in the Middle East. She put her hope in what God would do in the next three generations.
I recently picked up a book by Henri Nouwen called Behold the Beauty of the Lord. Nouwen describes four different icons and how each has helped him to pray. In Andrei Rublev’s icon The Descent of the Holy Spirit, the 12 apostles are depicted awaiting the coming of the Spirit with missional anticipation. When I pray for long-term systemic change, I like to look at the image of the apostles and remember who has come before us. When I remember the many saints and the sacrifices they’ve made, it gives me hope to pray for the next generations.
We must ask God for this kind of long-term perspective. Don’t just pray for what’s happening right now. Pray for the generations to come. You may never see the answers to your prayers, but your children’s children might. Pray with this kind of faith.
5. Pray consistently and corporately.
We may not be able to remember all there is to pray for on our own, but when we pray corporately we can help each other remember how to pray. Too often though, a prayer meeting is only called when there is a crisis or if something is currently being highlighted in the news. If we are praying regularly together, however, then there should be some prayers that we never stop praying. If there is something new that has come to our attention to pray for, of course we must pray for it. But that does not mean we stop praying for the areas of systemic injustice that God put on our hearts three years ago. It is when we pray those long-term prayers that we most need our community, for we will give up if we try to pray them on our own.
Don’t let your newsfeed be the only thing that dictates your activist life. God is so much bigger than that. If you pray, specifically and in community, you will see his justice come swiftly and you will see him move your heart to care for the whole world.
Kelly Aalseth is a Regional Coordinator for Leadership Development for InterVarsity in the Greater Los Angeles Region. She is the author of Keeper of Your Life: Actively Trusting Jesus Through Chronic Pain. She enjoys helping young people connect the dots between what God is doing in their inner lives and in mission. She graduated from UCLA in 2008 and now lives with her husband in Santa Ana.
Do I really believe that change would come if I stopped my “actions” and “just” prayed for reconciliation and justice and provision for those in need? And do I really believe, when I am working for justice, that it’s actually God who brings about the change, and not me? Most of the time, I’m not sure I do.
What if we allowed our prayers to inform our lives? What would our lives be like if prayer altered our living and began to shape our daily experiences? Gordon Smith invites us to learn three movements of prayer—thanksgiving, confession, and discernment. This small book is a resource for deepening your prayer practice.