As the father of two elementary-aged children, the news of the May 24 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas—just three hours south of my home in Austin, which resulted in the death of 19 children and 2 teachers—shook me deeply.
Driving my daughter to school the morning after, I felt acutely the fragility and unpredictability of life, and I found myself becoming intensely afraid—and increasingly angry.
Only 10 days prior, a racially motivated 18-year-old man, dressed in body armor and wielding a rifle with a high-capacity magazine, shot and killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket, wounding 3 others. Eleven of the 13 victims were Black.
A day after the mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Markets store in upstate New York, a gunman entered Geneva Presbyterian Church, in Laguna Woods, California—where a group of parishioners had gathered for a lunch to honor a former pastor of a Taiwanese congregation that uses the church for its worship services—and shot and killed one person and wounded five others.
One nation bombs another, a denomination keeps a secret list of abusive pastors, a man is profiled because of his skin color, a Christian is persecuted because of her faith, and thousands are cruelly displaced from their homes—all of it occurring against the backdrop of a global pandemic.
It’s tempting to shut down emotionally in light of all of this violence. It’s tempting to give into despair. “So goes the world,” we might say, wishing it were otherwise but feeling powerless to make a difference. It’s tempting to distract ourselves with busywork or to reach for spiritual platitudes to numb the pain. “Let go and let God.” “God works in mysterious ways.” “Heaven’s our real home.”
But our world is a violent one and the Bible does not allow us to ignore its violence or to explain it away with tidy theological slogans. It asks us to face our world squarely, together, and, where needed, to yell our rage to God. The Bible invites us to get angry at God, because he can handle all our bitter, angry tears and curses. And such words need to be said out loud, because that’s partly how we keep the chaos of violence from taking root in our own hearts.
As I write in my book on the psalms, there is no faithful prayer in Israel’s official book of worship, the Psalter, that trivializes evil, no genuine faith that ignores the destructive powers of sin, and no true witness that turns a blind eye to the violence of our world. It is for this reason that we turn to the psalms for guidance in times such as these, for they show us what we can—and indeed should—be praying in a violent world.
But a question remains: How exactly do we pray in the aftermath of such violence? What words of lament can we put on our lips that make sense of the senseless? To what could the whole people of God possibly say “amen” in light of the corrosive power of hate that allows neighbor to irrationally kill neighbor? What do an exhausted and dispirited people say to God at such a time?
These questions are, of course, far from easy to answer, but over the past couple of years I have attempted to give language to such matters in the form of Collect Prayers—in the hopes that they might prove useful, and perhaps comforting, to people who face the terrors and traumas of violent activities in one form or another.
May the Lord, in his mercy, hear our prayers.
A Prayer of Anger:
To the God whose holy anger heals;
To the Messiah whose righteous anger overcomes evil;
To the Spirit who keeps our anger from turning destructive:
Receive our wounded hearts;
Take our burning words;
Protect us from the desire for revenge.
May our righteous anger become fuel for justice in our fractured world
and for the mending of broken relations in our neighborhoods and homes.
For God’s sake—and ours—we pray.
A Prayer After a Mass Shooting:
O Lord, you who abhor those who murder the innocent, be not deaf to our bitter cries, we pray, and do not abandon us to our pain this day. Hear our raging words of protest, O God of Jacob, heed our groans for justice and meet us in this lowly and desperate place. Awake, Lord! Rouse yourself! Deliver us from evil, for your name’s sake! We pray this so that we might witness your might to save and your power to heal. We pray this in the name of our Fortress and Refuge. Amen.
A Prayer of Bitter Lament:
Merciful God, you who weep with those who weep, who rescue the oppressed, who incline your ear to the needy and who bind up the brokenhearted: hear our prayer. Bring an end to our distress. Preserve our lives. Rescue us. Heal us. Be near to us this day. We pray this in Jesus’ name, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, on whom we cast all our cares. Amen.
A Prayer for Peace in a Time of War:
O Lord, you who are the True King, have mercy, we pray, on the people who suffer the ravages of war this day. Silence the warmongers, scatter the bloodthirsty, shatter the weapons of war, and take pity on the vulnerable, so that true peace and justice might be restored to this land. We pray this in the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.
A Prayer Against Bloodthirstiness:
O Lord, you who abhor the bloodthirsty, rebuke the murderous, we pray, and break the sword of the violent, so that we might witness you as the God of Justice and the Lord of Righteousness under the light of the noonday sun. We pray this in the name of Christ our King. Amen.
A Prayer in Response to Death:
O Wounded Christ, you who have gone to the monstrous depths and swallowed death whole, tasting its bitter finality and conquering it once for all, we pray that you would free us from the fear of death and comfort us in the losses that we experience on account of death, so that our hearts might be infused this day with your resurrection life. We pray this in the name of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.
A Prayer for Police Officers:
Oh Lord, you who love righteousness and justice, we pray for all police officers today, that you would support and bless them in their duties, and that you would strengthen them to defend the cause of the vulnerable, maintain the right of the oppressed, serve the good of the community, and preserve the peace in our cities, so that they might be emissaries of your justice in the world. We pray this in the name of the Ruler of the Nations. Amen.
A Prayer for Our Enemies:
O Lord, you who ask us to do the impossible—to bless our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to love those who seek us harm—we pray that you would do the impossible in us: Help us to love our enemies as you love them and to remember who our true enemies are: Satan, death, and the spiritual forces of evil. Perform also a miracle in our enemies by your Spirit, and in your sovereign might restrain the power of evil in this world. We pray this in the name of the One who does impossible things. Amen.
A Prayer Against Neighbor Hate:
O Lord, you who command us to bless our enemies, protect us, we pray, from turning our neighbors into enemies, worthy only of hatred and deserving of nothing but insults and curses, and grant us instead the heart of Jesus, so that we might love our neighbors as you love them. We pray this in the name of the One who causes the sun to rise both on the evil and on the good. Amen.
A Prayer for Loving a Hurting Neighbor:
O Lord, you who do not look away from the pain of this world, open our eyes, we pray, to see the pain of our neighbor and, by grace, to become the healing presence and power of Jesus to them, so that our hearts might be kindled with your neighbor love this day. We pray this in the name of the Merciful One. Amen.
A Prayer to Become a Justice-Loving People:
O Lord, you who hate those who record unjust decisions, may we be a people who stand against injustice that occurs anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere, so that we might become worthy representatives of your righteous kingdom and extremists for Christ’s love. We pray this in the name of the One who sets the oppressed free. Amen.
A Prayer For Those Who Weary of Doing Justice:
O God, you who see the hearts of all with perfect clarity, I confess my irritation with those who bully their way with words, who think no one sees what they do in the shadows, and who live in a world of denial. I’m angry and scared and tired of doing the right thing. Strengthen my heart, I pray, so that I might not lose hope. I pray this in the name of the Good Shepherd and Just Judge. Amen.
A Prayer Against Duplicity of Heart:
O Lord, you who were cheered and jeered by the very same crowd, have mercy, I pray, on my own duplicitous ways: confessing one sin openly yet hiding another; blessing God out of one side of my mouth, while cursing my neighbor out of the other; smiling in public but raging in private; loving God and money equally much; and all other sins besides. Grant me the grace of integrity—of being one thing through and through—no matter what the cost. I pray this in the name of the One Who Remains True. Amen.
A Prayer for the Peaceable Kingdom of God:
O Lord, you who were manifested to the world at the visit of the Magi, manifest yourself to the world today as the King who refuses to use the violence of the world to the achieve the peace that we so eagerly desire, so that we might be strengthened to do the work of your peaceable kingdom in our own time and place. We pray this in the name of our Redeemer and King. Amen.
A Prayer of Allegiance to the Prince of Peace:
O Lord, you who deserve all our loyalties, we pledge allegiance this day to the Lamb of God and to the upside-down kingdom for which he stands, one holy nation under God, the Servant King and the Prince of Peace, with liberty and justice for all without remainder. We pray this in the name of the Holy Trinity. Amen.
W. David O. Taylor is associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life and accompanying illustrated psalms prayer cards.