Prayers at the 9/11 Memorial: Theistic or Therapeutic?


Mike Horton addresses the controversy about New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision not to include prayers for the official event. During the “Prayer for America” event at Yankee Stadium following the 9/11 terrorist atttacks, prayers were offered by representatives of different religious groups.

Politically-correct prayers, such as those offered in Presidential inaugurals, are the standard in today’s pluralistic culture. Anyone who is invited to offer a prayer in a public event must invoke a pantheon of gods, Christian and otherwise.

In his post at the White Horse Inn blog, “Prayer at Ground Zero”(read the whole article here), Horton questions the motivation for prayers in public events such as this year’s 9/11 anniversary (a Lord’s Day, so I imagine that many people will just tune in to their TV to participate in this “worship” event). Is prayer an act of worship directed to a particular deity, or is its value psychotherapeutic, to “find solace and healing,” “relief and repose,” and to “cope with the loss of loved ones”?

Is prayer offered for this purpose, horizontally and not vertically? Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 117 tells us why Christians pray:

First, that with our whole heart we call only upon the one true God, who has revealed Himself to us in His Word for all that He has commanded us to ask of Him;  second, that we thoroughly know our need and misery, so as to humble ourselves in the presence of His divine majesty; third, that we be firmly assured that notwithstanding our unworthiness He will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His Word.

Where should we pray in this manner, as Jesus taught us to pray? The Bible tells us: individually, in the privacy of our homes and corporately, in the church. The second instance is very important not only personally, but as the body of Christ:

It is in churches where we confess our sins and our faith in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel. Here, we gather as a communion of saints gathered “from every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Rev 5:9), not as a modern nation-state. We call upon the name of the LORD, which is none other than Jesus Christ, not merely for therapeutic consolation in our troubles (though this aspect is included), but for salvation from the guilt and tyranny of sin and the death penalty that it imposes. Here, with our brothers and sisters and before the face of the Triune God, our prayers acknowledge God’s justice in our condemnation and joy in God’s grace to us in his Son. With Christ as our Mediator, we are free to enter the Father’s presence with boldness, interceding for ourselves and for others, for needs pertaining to body and soul.

When we pray together in the church, the world is watching us, and when done in decency and order, they will even declare, “God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:25). Horton says that corporate prayer is also witnessing to the world,

What are we testifying to when we seek state acts of generic devotion to the Unknown God? To what—or whom—are we witnessing when we give the impression that people can find consolation from any “God” apart from the Father who is known only in his Son and is otherwise a judge who will not let sinners go unpunished?

Finally, Horton says that we are not to “evacuate the public square” and avoid our witness to the world. But we don’t need the advocacy or endorsement of public officials to do so. “Rather, we don’t need Mayor Bloomberg to help us with that. In fact, in the very act of doing so, we have to surrender the most important things we are called to say.”

UPDATE: Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in California has also written an intriguing piece on the exclusion of evangelicals from the prayer vigil at the “National Cathedral.” In “A Lesson from Marx for the SBC,” Trueman humors the readers:

The prayer vigil will, according to Fox News, include the dean of the Cathedral, the Bishop of Washington, a rabbi, a Buddhist nun and incarnate lama, a Hindu priest, the president of the Islamic Society of North America and a Muslim musician.   But no Southern Baptists, and, presumably, no Missouri Synod Lutherans, PCA pastors, OPC ministers etc.   And no musicians from the classic rock fraternity either, for that matter—unless we are perhaps talking Cat Stevens here.


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