“Thoughts and prayers” have become an all-too-familiar restrain in American life. A somber, liturgical response to yet another horrific mass killing.
For those of deep faith and even sometimes those of little or no faith, those words are all we can muster after the initial shock. We share the words when no others will come.
Hopefully, they come in the midst of actually empathetically thinking about the victims and emphatically praying for them.
For many, however, those words are not welcome. They ring hollow for some who are desperate for specific, practical steps. Others regard them as ineffective, at best, self-deluding and hindering actual good, at worst.
So what should we make of the “thoughts and prayers” of millions offered up in the aftermath of a tragedy?
Without a doubt, they are good. Even if you believe prayer is nothing more than talking to empty air, there are benefits to the prayers of others.
Offering thoughts and prayers …
Directs attention to the victims
Our culture is undoubtedly self-centered. The minute a tragedy strikes, the temptation is to think immediately and exclusively about how this affects me.
When we offer thoughts and prayers, we are saying, if for only that brief moment, it’s not all about me. I should empathize with other people.
We desperately need more empathy and praying for victims is a way to cultivate it.
Brings comfort to those praying
The primary victims are always those nearest the tragedy, those who’ve lost loved ones. But all of us are in some way victimized by the senseless killings.
Those who pray find comfort in speaking to God about things that worry them. When tragedies happen, people turn to what brings them comfort, which includes stock phrases.
As Andy Crouch says, during these moments, every human being, including politicians, “fall back on liturgies—patterns of language and behavior that are learned long before that get us through the worst moments of our lives.”
He called it “unrealistic, and arguably cruel,” to demand anyone, even our elected leaders, offer us fresh, fluent words while they are still grappling with the pain.
Avoids our over-politicization of life
Everything is political today. That’s not healthy. We were not created to view everything through a partisan lens. Praying avoids that.
People from every political persuasion can and do pray. And even the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is an attempt to include those who choose not to pray.
As the news cycle—particularly the one dominated by politics—churns on seemingly without end, we need breaks, especially in the aftermaths of tragedies, to share something.
True prayer includes an admission that you are not in control and you need help in this life. I want our leaders to cultivate that mindset.
So often, we see the consequences of politicians who feel as if they could never be wrong. Anything that reminds them (and us) of our limitations is a good thing.
Developing humility, however, takes effort. But prayer can be one of the things that point us down that path.
Channels anger in healthier directions
Have you been on social media lately? Anger and outrage dominate the digital landscape.
Sometimes, we need to be angry. There are times when outrage is warranted. But rarely is that when you see a tweet or Facebook update you disagree with.
Prayer grants us a better place to vent those emotions. The Psalms are full of God’s people pouring their hearts—worship, love, anger, questions, doubts, struggles, hopes—to Him.
We can and we should be angry over the senseless murder of individuals made in God’s image, but rarely is that anger righteous when we dehumanize with our words other individuals for disagreeing over the best way to solve our problems.
Enables other actions to follow
Stop praying and do something. To me, this is the oddest criticism against prayer.
Prayer is not a substitute for actions. It is an action itself and frequently (rightly) followed by other actions.
One political commentator attempted to dismiss prayers, by saying Jesus didn’t pray for people needing healing; He healed them. But Jesus did both. And Jesus’ acts of healing were preceded by His prayers.
Even practically speaking, if our nation hopes to make any movement on developing real solutions for gun violence, we will need everyone to work together.
Mocking those who pray, even if they are politicians, will not engender support or cooperation.
Brings our requests to God
For those of us who do believe in prayer, we rest in the fact that God listens and God acts. And He promised us our prayers have an effect.
“The prayer of a righteous person is a very powerful in its effect.” — James 5:16
God listening and our prayer having an effect are different, however, from the idea of whether prayer “works” or not.
As C.S. Lewis wrote about the efficiency of prayer, always having your request granted wouldn’t prove the Christian concept of prayer.
The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable “success” in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something much more like magic – a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.
We need more prayers before, during and after a tragedy not as a replacement for actions, but as a means of action—both human and divine.