I hear you.
You’re tired of empty words in a world filled with them.
You’re tired of bankrupt sentiment being used to selfishly curate an image in a world where what you sympathize with is a form of social currency.
And after every tragedy you see a flurry of a section of humanity rush to write “thoughts and prayers” about whatever terrible thing just happened in whatever current media outlets they use to reflect the image of them they want the world to see.
It seems trite.
Even worse than trite, really.
“If you were praying, why did this happen in the first place? The world needs more than just your thoughts and prayers, it needs your actions and maybe if you had acted before instead of prayed then this wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
That certainly doesn’t sum up the complexity of the reaction towards the phrase “thoughts and prayers” but I have regularly seen this kind of sentiment in the common avenues of my life. I even sometimes share similar sentiments about that phrase and prayers without the accompaniment of action.
This echoes many of the admonitions given to followers of Jesus in Scripture. John in his first letter tells us to not love with “words or speech” but with actions and in truth. James tells us merely telling someone to go in peace and be warm and well fed does no good if you don’t do something about it from your material possessions. Jesus has plenty to say about praying in public for show. Prayer and action are connected to each other and there are certainly people who throw these phrases that don’t get their meaning or don’t care, which is why we have warnings from Scripture.
I get concerned, however, that everyone who uses the phrase will be lumped into this group. I also get concerned that agreement on some reaction to the phrase will communicate that prayer isn’t effective, powerful, and completely appropriate. Can we discuss adding nuance to our reaction to the phrase “thoughts and prayers” without throwing it out completely because of the misuse by some? Let me share some thoughts in hopes to convince some of you, even those who aren’t Christian, that there is benefit in our societal intercourse for use of this phrase.
1. This is pretty important: The “thoughts” portion of “thoughts and prayers” was added to the common vernacular as a kind concession to communicate to non-believers or practitioners of other religions that they weren’t being excluded. I’ve had plenty of people tell me personally they don’t want my prayers because they don’t believe in what I believe but they will accept good will or “positive vibes”. The “thoughts” addition to the phrase “I’ll pray for you” is intended to be inclusive of the beliefs of another person. I don’t think we should be hasty to remove inclusive phrases.
2. Saying you are thinking and praying for someone says “I see you and I see that you are suffering or need help.” In a world that goes to a lot of lengths to delegitimize suffering, this is a phrase that communicates that the person saying it agrees something is wrong or needs attention. To act on something it first has to be recognized as a problem.
3. When a Christian says they are praying for you that Christian believes they not only are acting, but acting in a dramatic way. It may not be the only action that needs to be taken but prayer is a big action all in itself. While you who read this may not believe, know that I believe I am taking this matter to the highest being in the universe to ask both “What gives?” and “Will you do something?” Regardless of your belief, that person praying for you communicates that they think you are important enough that the creator of the universe should consider personal involvement.
4. We pray because we see the results of prayer in our lives. I can’t tell you how often I pray for something and it happens. It doesn’t always happen like I envisioned but something always seems to happen. At this point I’m not crossing my fingers or throwing a coin in a wishing well – I’ve seen amazing things happen in the most difficult of circumstances. It would be foolish of me to ignore that God answers prayers based on the evidence of my life.
5. We pray because God loves to act on our wishes. Scripture is filled with this important concept we often ignore: God likes to include man in decision making despite our shortcomings. God empowers humans and chooses, from the beginning, to facilitate his global kingdom/family through wiling participation and the choices of humanity. Based on that, prayer is a responsibility.
But then, why did the bad thing happen in the first place and why didn’t God stop it?
6. When I say “thoughts and prayers”, I am reflecting on the power God entrusted to humans through free will. God places a great deal of weight on our free will and is dedicated to humans correcting human mistakes. Free will is deeply connected to our ability to love and be loved. Disposing of it limits love. Our free will, however, often leads to actions that are selfish when one of those is abused in our desire to participate in it. Then, God lets us reap what we sow. Prayer recalibrates our free will decisions by tacit acknowledgment that our methodology was bad or we were/still are ignorant of what needs to be done in order to have a loving, fair society and our role in it. Prayer is a cross point for our free will and God’s sovereignty.
7. Therefore, when I say “thoughts and prayers”, I am telling you that I am reorienting. I am pausing to reflect. So, where is the action? Well, the start of the action is to share sympathy and comfort. However, since prayer generally includes a humble acknowledgement that our understanding is limited, a Christian needs to pause to let God expand their understanding. Part of this is a direct call from Jesus not to just love those that love us or look like us but to love strangers and enemies. When I proceed forward, therefore, I need to do it in a way that is loving on multiple levels. This is no mere kindness, what drives out darkness is light, so if I am to follow the advice of God about how to be effective in changing things I must combat evil with love. Prayer is an attempt not only to align with a possibly complicated mulit-faceted response, it is an attempt to enact change in my behavior to do my part to ensure what happened will never happen again.
8. So, thoughts and prayers also is meant to communicate that proceeding requires nuance. It may get to the point where I feel so limited in my information that I must decide to give up control and let others closer to the incident decide. This is often where people rush to provide “facts” to one another and are outraged that action isn’t happening faster but my experience is that this social media world repeatedly proves that the situations are more complicated than they are being displayed and that there are people on every side who are trying to commoditize my rage and compassion for their own personal gain. It’s not a desire – I need supernatural guidance to understand what is going on in order to make a good choice because it is so hard to trust information sources. Going to God, who knows all, gives me a sounding board who knows all and a personal instructor in the Spirit to guide me into truth.
9. Being in the throne room of God reminds me of what is truly important which in turn leads to thoughtful action. The start of my understanding of why humanity is loveable in its differences, the revelation of the brokenness inside me that affects others originating from things I’ve done and things done to me, the understanding of beauty, the connection to contentment, the overflow of love to forgive – all of these start in prayer for me. Going away from talking to God, I get lost in the sea of brokenness. Prayer is reading the last page of the book and realizing there is a happy ending after all. I taste eternity in the presence of the being that was and is and is to come. It teaches me what I do now matters and how to engage that by letting go of things that do not matter to which I cling. What holds me back from acting is usually brokenness. Being in the presence of God exposes, then melts those chains away so that I am free to act. In the presence of God I feel whole and wholeness is the safest place from which to act.
10. There are a lot of people who utter these words who really ARE acting after they say them. The real truth is this: my experience with “church people” is overwhelmingly that they are generous and acting on their faith. They just do it quietly. They are opening up to relationships, giving money, giving time, and constantly pushing themselves to do more because they are loved by a God who is giving. Seriously, my mom hand writes letters to kids in India, my wife buys bags that are more expensive so that poor women around the world who make them are given a fair wage, friends serve meals regularly to homeless people, a friend swam Lake Michigan to raise awareness of the lack of safe drinking water in many countries, others friends try to give hope to people incarcerated, and on and on and on. They are engaging the world around them. And let me also tell you the norm is that they don’t expect people to share their faith to receive this outreach.
My prayer in the end is that this furthers a conversation. I am not attempting to silence questions with this blog. As hard as it can be, it’s healthy to entertain the sincere question “Do you actually mean that sentiment?” I am to be a minister of reconciliation to God with humanity and I need to refine whether reconciliation is actually happening or not. However, I do hope this prayer and these thoughts give you comfort next time you see those words “thoughts and prayers”. We occasionally need to call each other to act further, but, there is power alone in thoughts and prayers from a engaged believer in Jesus Christ. Let’s not discard that.