HOW SHOULD WE PRAY FOR PEOPLE ENDURING NATURAL CATASTROPHES AND OTHER TRAGEDIES?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Recently, a grace believer, a dear sister in Christ, told me that, since we understand what God is doing today, and what He is not doing today, that “we really cannot pray for anything for the people” in Texas and here in Louisiana who were recently devastated by Hurricane Harvey. As an afterthought, she added that we could at least pray for their salvation in Christ. Could we pray for them in more specific ways though? How should mature grace believers pray for people enduring hardships, especially natural disasters? “For what saith the Scriptures?”
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE CONFUSION
Dear friend, we can learn so much about a person’s theology by listening to them pray aloud. We can hear them talking directly to God, hearing what is on and in their heart. Their words show us where they are in their understanding of the Holy Scriptures. We can hear what Bible verses they are repeating back to God. Are they quoting verses written to and about the nation Israel, or verses to and about the Church the Body of Christ? That is, are they praying in light of what God did in the past, or what God is doing today? Stated another way, are they earthly minded, or heavenly minded? Are they “study[ing]… rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)?
The realm of prayer often abounds with superstition. Thus, a wise brother once rightly stated that we should especially guard our prayer life, lest superstition creep in. If we listened to the average Christian’s prayers over the course of a day or week, we would hear very little, if any, sound Bible teaching. No doubt there would be many nice-sounding terms and flattering titles, much theological speculation, and (of course!) snippets of assorted Scripture verses.
Yet, overall, the prayer would be shallow, meaningless, and ineffectual. I say this from personal experience, having listened to denominational Christians’ prayers—including my own (!)—for many, many years. Various and sundry strange ideas lurk in the minds of so many believers because they are so grossly misinformed or severely uninformed. They grab and quote Bible teachings without discretion, apart from context. Religion has done an unparalleled job in confusing them, and prayer exposes these mix-ups!
Whenever tragedy strikes, everyone really starts praying—even the so-called “non-religious.” They may not be churchgoers and/or they may not “believe in God” at all, but something inside them, some inexplicable urge, drives them to start speaking to any “god” who may be listening. While they do not understand why they want to pray (we do understand), they do it anyway. Hurricanes, mass shootings, bombings, burning buildings, tsunamis, automobile accidents, and so on, motivate people everywhere to pray. In times of danger, people trained in so-called “Christian” religion automatically start reciting the so-called “Lord’s Prayer,” “Our Father which art in heaven….” Others do a “Hail Mary,” “Glory Be,” or direct some other prayer to some other “saint.” As stated before, prayers get more fervent and more numerous in times of trouble! Empowered by great zeal, sincere people become distracted from what sound Biblical prayer really is and what it ultimately accomplishes. This leads to worse error.
For example, we in the southeastern United States are prone to hurricanes during summer and autumn. Many times I have seen “prayers for hurricane season” flyers or articles distributed. People beg God to spare them from these natural disasters. They do not want to suffer/die, see loved ones suffer/die, or lose their property. Hence, they read that prescribed prayer over and over and over, hoping God will grant them their wish. However, despite all that praying, hurricanes still come and destroy lives and property. Bible scoffers look and say, “Ha! Those ‘Christians’ are a bunch of superstitious ignoramuses! Just as we thought, there is no ‘God!’ They prayed for ‘God’ to spare them and no one was there to hear them! ‘God’ cannot help me any more than He can help them! Me joining ‘Christianity?’ No thanks!” As for the “Christians,” they are disappointed, defeated, and perplexed. “Where is God when I need Him? Is it my unconfessed sin? My worthlessness? His unconcern? Why was I ignored?”
Friend, it is harsh, but it is truth. We need to recognize and call out nonsense for what it is, to the intent we address and correct it. Not only is the scoffer being foolish. What is also foolish is the “Christian” uttering prayers that have absolutely nothing to do with what God is doing today anyway. It is silly to point to the faulty prayers of ill-informed religious people and use them to build a case against God. God is not involved in what they are praying; consequently, their prayers are in vain, to no purpose, meaningless. Had they prayed according to God’s will, they would have seen results not to disappoint. If God does not react or behave the way we want, we have no business telling Him He is wrong, lazy, or imaginary! There is no need whatsoever to be uninformed or misinformed concerning Christian prayer during times of trouble. If there is any doubt or confusion whatsoever concerning prayer, any fault or disappointment whatsoever touching prayer, the problem lies in people rather than God and the Holy Bible!
As stated earlier, when bad news is heard, people start praying. For what do they pray? They pray for injured bodies to be healed. They ask God for the serial killer’s apprehension. They pray there is no severe property damage. They ask God for financial difficulties to disappear. They pray for floodwaters to subside. They ask God for storms to dissipate quickly and/or not come their way. They pray for no one to be hurt. They pray for God not to let anyone die. They pray for no power outages, and no food or water shortages. They pray for their dying loved ones to live. It is assumed that Almighty God will perform miracles to show His love and goodness toward them. After all, there are Bible passages that demonstrate God’s miraculous power clearly visible in the lives of people long ago.
Understandably, today, people still want to see God’s activities with their physical eyes. There is the idea that “everything in the Bible is mine.” Since signs, miracles, and wonders belong to the nation Israel, and Israel appears in approximately 80 percent of the Bible, most of the Scriptural accounts involve God doing work before physical eyes. Think of Moses parting the Red Sea, the 12 Apostles healing sick bodies, the Lord Jesus casting out devils, fire and brimstone raining down from Heaven to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord Jesus calming the storm, Israel’s many military victories, water pouring forth from a rock, manna and quail falling from Heaven, floodwaters covering the globe in the day of Noah, and numerous other examples.
People who go to church are often under the impression that God has not changed His dealings with man. Their mantra is, “What God did long ago, He can and still does today.” Obviously, though, when we think about it, what God did in time past is not what He is doing today in the but now. Do global floodwaters destroy all life forms today? (They once did, you know!) Is the Red Sea being miraculously divided now? (It once was, you recall!) Does manna rain down from Heaven today? (It once did, you know!) Yes, God did those things in the past. There is no doubt in this author’s mind that the God of the Bible can perform and did perform miracles for physical eyes to see. However, this author knows that, on the authority of the rightly divided Scriptures, God is doing something different today. (You are no doubt startled here, huh?) What if this author told you there was a better way to pray? What if this author would be delighted to share that information with you, friend?
AN ANSWER TO THE CONFUSION
How should we as grace believers pray during times of trouble? As Pauline dispensationalists, how should we pray in calamities? More specifically, how would God’s grace cause us to pray for those affected by such tragedies? Prayer is for Christian believers only. It is designed to bring the Word of God into our lives, to reinforce in our minds and hearts what God wrote to us in His Word rightly divided. Someone once aptly stated: “If we want to do God’s will, then we need to find out what God is doing today. When we do by faith what God is doing, then we are doing God’s will.” Now, dear friend, what is God’s will? How do we pray according to God’s will? Here are two very easy verses to consider.
First Timothy 2:3-4 says: “ For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;  Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” Regardless of the dispensation, God’s twofold general will remains the same. He wants each and every individual to have a personal relationship with Him through faith in His Word to them. While the divine message to mankind has changed throughout human history, Almighty God has always looked for individuals who have had belief, trust, in that divine revelation. This is the “saved” part of verse 4. Secondly, He wants each and every individual to, by faith, accomplish His work with Him. “Coming to the knowledge of the truth” (last part of verse 4) is learning more and more about what God is specifically doing at one particular time of human history (especially our modern-day).
Romans 11:13 says: “For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office.” This is the Apostle Paul writing: he is God’s spokesman to us. Therefore, if we want to know what God has to tell us, we need to listen to Paul’s words. The word “apostle” means “sent one.” The Lord Jesus said in John 13:20: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.” Jesus Christ sent Paul to us. If we want to hear Jesus Christ’s words, we need to listen to Paul. Paul wrote 13 epistles, Romans through Philemon—the “Pauline Books of the Bible.” To reject Paul is to reject Jesus Christ. Let us heed the Pauline doctrine given us!
The Lord Jesus Christ revealed to the Apostle Paul some special divine truths, that Paul would then make them known to us Gentiles. Ephesians 3:1-2 says: “ For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,  If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:….” This information—“the Dispensation of the Grace of God”—was previously unrevealed to mankind. It was not known in the “Old Testament,” including the Four Gospels (Christ’s earthly ministry). God deliberately kept it secret until He revealed it to Paul. If we ignore Paul, like many do, we ignore information found nowhere else in Scripture!
In the Pauline epistles, the Dispensation of the Grace of God given to us Gentiles, we do not read about problems being miraculously taken away. There is no natural disaster reversal or sickness removal. God does not intervene in the lives of people to supernaturally deposit money into their bank accounts. On the contrary, we read Christians suffering “deep poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:1-2). We read about an ill pastor, Timothy, whom God does not miraculously heal; Timothy must use medicine instead for his many ailments (1 Timothy 5:23). Paul himself suffered various bodily afflictions (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Galatians 4:13-15). He too had financial problems, deprivations, and other difficulties (2 Corinthians 11:22-28). We read about another sick Christian, Trophimus, with an unhealed body in 2 Timothy 4:20 (Paul’s last writing before death).
Actually, friend, contrary to what you may have heard in “church,” we Christians are guaranteed to suffer simply because we live in a world dominated by Satan. Acts 14:22 says: “Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” And 2 Timothy 3:12: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” It makes no sense for us Christians to pray to avoid trouble… the Bible already said we will suffer trouble!
Non-Christians and Christians alike all live in a fallen creation. Sin has corrupted God’s original universe, which is why there is suffering (bodily pains, violent weather, famine, drought, disease, death, et cetera). Romans 8:18-25 tells us: “ For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.  For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,  Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.  And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.  For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?”
Contrary to popular belief, Christian living is not summarized as “everything will go your way, you will have constant peace, you will have endless prosperity, and you will always enjoy good health.” No indeed! God has not promised to shield us from war, sickness, natural disaster, financial ruin, physical death, and so on. Any of these evils can strike anyone without warning. The curse is random. God does not “select” people for specific punishments. Again, that was true in the past, in other dispensations, but that is not true today (more on this later). One day, God will lift the curse of sin from creation. He will give Christians new glorified bodies, ones that can never grow old, become sick, or die. Until then, though, we are not guaranteed a problem-free existence. We already saw several Bible passages that proved this to be true beyond any shadow of a doubt. But, how can God let us go through such troubles without deliverance? Is that not cruel? Why is there no physical working of God to rescue us from our troubles?
Under the Law of Moses, the Old Covenant, God punished the nation Israel with curses when they failed to obey Him. You can look at Leviticus chapter 26 and Deuteronomy chapter 28. The unbelieving, rebellious Jews suffered sickness, crop failure (drought and famine), infertility, military defeat, political oppression, and so on. God was angry with them. He was chastising them for their disobedience, trying to get them to reform their wayward behavior. Should we conclude this today? Is God punishing us today with troubles? People who do not “rightly divide the word of truth” do not understand that we are under a different program today. We are under Grace instead of Law (Romans 6:14-15). Rather than concluding that tribulations (troubles) are God’s judgment on us, we understand that those tribulations work for our benefit. During those difficult circumstances, we can we rely more fully on the Lord Jesus Christ!
Romans 5:1-5 tells us: “ Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:  By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;  And patience, experience; and experience, hope:  And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
Earlier, we saw in Ephesians 3:2 that we are under the Dispensation of the Grace of God. God’s attitude toward the world today is “grace and peace.” Each and every one of Paul’s epistles opens with “grace and peace” (check the first chapter of every Bible Book, Romans through Philemon). This is God’s present message to the world, the nations, the Gentiles. As stated previously, we only find that worldwide “grace and peace” message in Paul’s epistles. The rest of the Bible is legalistic, Law-oriented, Israel-focused. We must be sure to keep these Pauline and non-Pauline sections of the Bible separate, or we run the risk of confusing God’s various instructions to mankind throughout history. Either we recognize Paul’s apostleship to us, or we start grabbing Bible verses not to and about us.
Second Corinthians 5:19-21 says: “ To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.  Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.  For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” God is not out to “get” anyone today, “zap” someone today, or “strike” someone today. He is offering all nations “grace and peace” through Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork. When we see trouble in the Dispensation of Grace, it is not God pouring out His wrath. God’s wrath will follow our dispensation, yes, but there is no divine wrath today.
Rather than concluding that disaster means God hates us, we should see those trying times as opportunities to enjoy inner peace, strength, and proper thinking. Romans 5:8 says, “For God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If we want to look at God’s love for us, we look to Calvary rather than our circumstances. In Christ, God has given us (believers) internal provisions to strengthen us. Tragedies do not have to destroy us. God will not change our circumstances, but He will change us inside as we endure those circumstances. That is grace prayer, praying according to the Dispensation of Grace, reinforcing in our minds what the Dispensation of Grace entails.
Notice 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “ For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.  For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;  While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Dear friends, despite our outward circumstances—whether good or bad—the “inward man” is being “renewed day by day.” The outward body is weakening, aging, and dying, but the inward body is growing stronger. Sound Bible doctrine renews our mind on a daily basis, causing us to think about our problems the way God Himself does (go back to Romans 5:1-5, quoted earlier). You may also check Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:23, and Colossians 3:10.
Ephesians 3:16 tells us how the Spirit of God works: “That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;….” The Spirit of God works from the inside out. He takes sound Bible doctrine that we study and believe, and works in us. First Thessalonians 2:13: “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” The internal work of God the Holy Spirit will produce outward behavior. Watch grace move from internal to external.
Ephesians 4:28 instructs: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Rather than God the Holy Spirit miraculously raining money down from Heaven so those less fortunate can have their necessities met, He will work in Christian people who have the resources (time, money/goods, energy) to meet those needs. Friend, let me tell you something I have learned from personal experience. When you learn of a certain person in need, and you pray about that person long enough, you will find yourself meeting that need. You pray about a poor person long enough, and you will find yourself giving to help. You pray for a sick person long enough, and you will find yourself visiting that individual. You pray for a lost person long enough, and you will find yourself sharing the Gospel with that soul. (You doubt me? Try it and see!) See, friend, prayer is designed to activate God’s Word in the believer’s soul. Once the will is moved by sound doctrine, the physical body will move accordingly!
While more could be said, we want to wind down and summarize. Concerning people enduring tragedies, there are really two classes of individuals for whom to pray. There are lost people (non-Christians) and there are saved people (Christians). What should we pray for them? Again, what is God’s will in this current dispensation? Go back to 1 Timothy 2:3-4 from earlier. Firstly, God wants all lost people to be saved by grace, trusting in His Son (Jesus Christ) and His finished crosswork as sufficient payment for their sins. This is the Gospel of the Grace of God. Secondly, God wants all Christians to know the truths of His Word today, how grace works in our lives as believers. This is the Message of the Grace of God. Both parts of God’s will involve grace—justification by grace through faith, and sanctification by grace through faith!
Lost people can replace their lost material possessions, but they cannot replace their soul after losing it in Hell (Matthew 16:26—“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”). More than anything, during or after tragedy, we need to pray that these lost people be saved from their sins now, that they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ now. We pray this, and one of two things will happen. Either we will eventually go out and personally share the Gospel with them, or God’s Word will work in other Christians and they will share the Gospel with them. (Try it and see!)
Now, let us talk about praying for Christians enduring tragedy. Satan will use their misfortunes to distract them from God’s love in Christ. In Romans chapter 8, the Holy Spirit speaks of a “who” exploiting difficult circumstances to cause us Christians to believe those problems mean God does not love us. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). The “who” is Satan using various life problems to divert our attention away from God’s Word. We need to pray for our Christian brethren enduring calamity to remember God’s love for them commended at Calvary. They do not need to be saved from their sins—they are already justified in Christ. Now, they need to be saved from erroneous thinking. The Holy Spirit needs to enlighten and strengthen them with God’s grace, mercy, peace, and joy. With those truths in mind and heart, they can get through anything! 🙂
“ And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.  And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).