I don’t understand prayer. I mean, not really. I don’t know how it works, or if it works, and I have noticed that when I pray for something to change, the thing that changes the most is usually me.

Maybe that is how it works, after all.

I once was pastor to a woman named Karen. Her partner – let’s call him Tony – was routinely physically abusive to her and trafficked her to support his drug habit. I knew she needed to leave him, she knew she needed to leave him. But she didn’t have the strength to leave. She, like many in her situation, was afraid.

Those of us who loved her tried to be supportive of her, and we all pretty much despised him. During our weekly chapel service, we would all pray for her safety. She and I would talk regularly, and she would tell me that she was praying something would happen to him so he wouldn’t hurt her anymore.

Several men in our small community volunteered to whoop his ass, but she asked them not to. It was a combination of her fear of him and that none of them could afford to catch a charge for assault.

But Tony was his own worst enemy. One day, he smarted off to the wrong person in a drug deal gone bad, and 6 guys beat the ever-loving shit out of him. I mean, they broke his legs, broke his jaw, broke his skull, broke his ribs, broke things inside of him. He was inside the hospital for more than a month and when he finally did leave, he left in a wheelchair.

While he was in the hospital, we bought her a bus ticket to go live with a friend of hers in another state. She was free. He would never hurt her again.

The following week, in our chapel service, we lifted her name up during prayer time and thanked God for her safety. One lady asked if it would be wrong to thank God for Tony’s being in the hospital. Or wrong for them to be glad he would never walk again.

I told them that they got to feel what they felt. I told them that there is no one prescribed response to trauma, and no one way to feel after trauma was over. And I told them that Jesus said he was in favor of tying rocks to people and chucking them in the sea if they harmed vulnerable folks. David, a man we are told is a man after God’s own heart, wanted to smash the heads of his enemies’ babies against the rocks.

I told them it was complicated, sometimes, this desire to protect the vulnerable while also wanting to model a better world.

But I also told them that Karen had been in danger, and now she was not. Because this happened, she was now safe. And I reminded them that this was caused 100% by his own actions. In other words, Tony got his ass beat because he was the sort of person he was. This was entirely the consequence of his own actions.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think there is a plan. I think God, or the Universe, or whatever metaphor you want to use for whatever is larger than we are, is just frugal and, since the universe wastes nothing, the tragedies that befall all of us are not debris left over from disasters, but building materials from which we build our lives.

So I don’t know if our prayer is the reason Tony will never walk again or the reason Karen is still alive. But I do know that those prayers changed me.