Asking God’s Guidance in Tough Times

After terrorist attacks and other tragedies, resist the urge to undercut faith's power

The images are too horrible. Bodies are strewn everywhere. Men, women, and children lie crushed under the wheels of a truck. We cry out in sorrow. We weep for our brothers and sisters. We feel helpless.

After events such as the Nice, France, terror attack, we ask, “Why?”

But what is there left to do but pray?

You cannot pray to God without petitioning yourself.

For many believers, prayer can present a conundrum. What exactly is prayer? Are we asking for something? What exactly are we asking for? It gets even more confusing because every pastor, every church, every rabbi, every synagogue may describe prayer just a little bit differently — and every denomination has many different types of prayers.

Is there some common denominator we all can understand? Is there some way to discuss prayer so that we can help ourselves, help each other, and perhaps help those suffering in Nice?

We know God isn’t going to contravene the laws of time and space, and turn back time to prevent the attack. That’s not what prayer is for. Many Christians will pray for intercession in some form. Many will pray for the souls of those who perished. But beyond this, many are left to ask: What can we do?

Related: Staying Faithful at a Time of Terror

Matthew Bennett — a brilliant theologian, Christian, and founder and CEO of Christian Union — reminds us to first thank God. As awful as a terrorist attack may be, thanking God for our salvation doesn’t change, nor is thanking Him for the acts that reflect His grace. There was, even in those moments, divine inspiration in the form of the heroes involved, like the man who leapt into the truck cab and tried to stop the attacker.

When it comes to petitioning, Bennett suggests Colossians 1:9-10. There, the Apostle Paul essentially asks, “What is Your will? What ethical behavior and mindset should I have to be fully pleasing to You?” These prayers are often answered by God’s provision to us of images, thoughts, or feelings about how to behave and how to act.

Sometimes, with this heightened awareness, we may notice things in our life we did not notice before — things that offer guidance. Perhaps someone else will bring us wisdom in the form of a sermon, or we will witness an act of kindness that, coupled with divine inspiration, moves us to action.

Related: Finding the Light When All Seems Lost

Judaism takes a similar path using different semantics.

The late Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, told us, “In Judaism, you pray as a co-creator, co-responsible, and co-partner with God. That vital belief is the astounding, unparalleled Jewish metaphor of our relationship with God: It tells as much about yourself as it tells about God. For a Jew, life is a partnership with God … You are created with original potentiality to sanctify the world.”

We can act individually and in concert with God.

“You cannot pray to God,” Schulweis said, “without petitioning yourself.”

The language is different, but the goal and result are the same. Jews ask God how to behave, and how to act to help bring about healing in the world.

Schulweis rejected the notion that God moved humans around on a chess board to create 9/11, because “that gives us an alibi to break the contract of the Divine-human partnership.”

Instead, Schulweis encouraged us to look at the divine human responses of men climbing fiery stairs to save others, and of the “500,000 human beings, unrelated to the victims, who gave 125,000 gallons of blood to save the lives of others. Human blood moved by the human heart to transfuse life into bleeding human being. That’s authentic responsive prayer!”

And so, too, is there responsive prayer occurring in, around, and far away from Nice. We may not see it individually — but we can act individually and in concert with God, by petitioning Him for guidance.