On March 4, 1865, forty-one days before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address in Washington, DC. The speech is dense, and documents, in the 16th President’s own words, terrible truths about how the North and South regarded the inhabitants of the country Lincoln refers to as a “peculiar and powerful interest.”
Beyond the topic of war and slavery, the speech is concerned with religious questions on prayer and God’s will. In referring to both sides in the war, Lincoln notes that:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.
Of course, this quote’s second sentence refers to the pure evil of slavery: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces…”
The first and third sentences evoke a question that those of us who pray have probably asked ourselves, and that, in many cases, makes us doubt our religious beliefs and the existence of God: What’s the use of praying?
“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other.”
Each side seeks victory for itself and defeat for the other. How can we reconcile two individuals, or two groups, praying just as fervently for two opposite outcomes, outcomes that entail the defeat, harm, even death of the other?
In the case of war, the “other” may be an entity whose ideas we abhor -which, in a way, legitimizes our prayers. There are cases though, when our prayers being answered necessarily involves the death and suffering of people we are neutral about, or even know to be innocent and good.
It’s tormenting and terrifying even, when you think about it, to pray to God: Please God, don’t let it be my son one of the unnamed casualties from this shooting. Or, Please, God, let my sister be one of the survivors in the crash. We know there are others invoking the same God for the same reason. Whose prayer will God answer? If not mine, why?
“The prayers of both could not be answered.”
It’s clearly impossible, then, for God, to answer conflicting prayers from his various children – even if he wanted to, even if there’s no evil involved.
And this is where God’s divine plan -God’s will- comes in. I don’t know if God or a divine plan exist. Nobody does. Most of the time, I doubt that they do. Yet I do pray a lot. I see it as a habit and a practice instilled by my Catholic upbringing.
I’ll be the first to admit that my prayer practice isn’t rational. When no crisis besets me -which is most of the time- I prefer to think that, if God exists, His plan is having no plan.
However, when I’m on an airplane (I have a serious fear of flying), I pray like crazy and I know that He’ll protect me. When my son fell and suffered a traumatic brain injury, as I prayed non-stop, I knew that God would help him heal. Or at least I felt, with my whole being, as if I knew.
For a while in my adult life, because I tend to rationalize everything, I felt a bit silly and hypocritical about praying. Lately especially, I’ve come to embrace prayer for what it gives me, whether or not it makes any sense.
Prayer is community, hope, positive energy, being in the moment, instant inner peace. I’ll take it and let others theologize.
Link to the full speech: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.