“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

by K.W. Leslie, 24 October

When disaster strikes, whether natural or manmade, one of the most common platitudes we hear thereafter is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

In the past several years the expression has seen a bit of backlash. Mainly because the people who say it have turned it into an empty, hypocritical saying. By their actions, they demonstrate they’re not really thinking of the disaster victims. And either they’re also not praying, or they’re praying in some manner that doesn’t change ’em whatsoever—contrary to how we all know prayer is supposed to work.

To be fair, some of the backlash comes from nontheists who are pretty sure prayer is bunk: Nobody’s listening, so we Christians are only talking to the sky; nobody’s interacting with us, so we Christians aren’t gonna change. Prayers are therefore just as useless as when some pagans attempt to send positive thoughts, vibes, and energy towards the needy: All they actually do is psyche themselves into feeling really happy things, then feel a little burst of euphoria which they figure is them “releasing” those thoughts into the universe—and then they’re back to life as usual. Unless the happy thoughts get ’em to deliberately behave in more positive, productive ways towards those around them, the universe is no different. Nor better.

Give you an example. One of the United States’ recent mass shootings might take out more masses than usual. The news media covers it like crazy; the public is horrified; the usual senators tweet that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims and their families. And those who want gun restrictions object: These particular senators aren’t gonna change the gun laws whatsoever. If anything they’ll try all the harder to eliminate gun restrictions. Which means more mass shootings are inevitable. So what good are those senators’ thoughts and prayers?

I mean, functionally it’s the same as when James objected to “faith” which lacked works:

James 2.14-17 KWL
14 What’s the point, my fellow Christians, when anyone claims to have faith and takes no action?
This “faith” doesn’t save them.
15 When a Christian brother or sister becomes destitute, lacks daily food,
16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace! May you be warm and fed,”
and doesn’t give them anything useful for their body, what’s the point?
17 This “faith,” when it takes no action, is dead to the core.

Our “thoughts and prayers” frequently aren’t any different than wishing the needy well, but doing nothing to make ’em less needy. Sometimes out of our own laziness, sometimes our own ill will. And the needy aren’t dense. They see the irreligiousness of it. They’re calling us on it. Rightly so.

If our thoughts and prayers do nothing, our faith is dead.

Prayer must transform the petitioner.

When we’re interceding with God over others’ needs, prayer should have one of two outcomes: Either it provokes God to do something, or it provokes us towards changing ourselves. Regularly, we should see both happen.

Yeah, there are determinists who are pretty sure prayer doesn’t change God whatsoever: He’s had his evil secret plan drafted since the dawn of time, and prayer isn’t about convincing God to change his mind—scriptures to the contrary Ex 32.14, Jr 18.8, 26.3, 26.19, Jh 3.9-10 NRSV —but changing us so we’re more apt to accept our own fate. Yeah, it’s for fatalistic reasons, but determinists have written quite a lot about how prayer’s meant to change us. And some of their observations aren’t wrong. But prayer’s meant to change us too, not change us only. Prayer also moves God, y’know. Otherwise Jesus wouldn’t tell us to strive with him!

Luke 18.1-8 KWL
1 Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to always pray and never despair,
2 saying, “Some judge in some city had no respect for God, no regard for people.
3 A widow was in that city, and came to him saying, ‘Defend me from my adversary!’
4 He didn’t want to, at the time.
After this, he told himself, ‘Though I neither respect God nor regard people,
5 because this woman’s really giving me trouble, I’ll defend her so she’ll quit coming to bother me!’ ”
6 Master Jesus said, “Listen to what this wrong-headed judge says!
7 As for God: Won’t he defend his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?
Will he put up with their cries? 8 I tell you he’ll quickly defend them.
But will the Son of Man find faith on earth at his second coming?”

But God’s actions aside, we oughta also see the petitioners act.

You wanna see change? Well God’s made us the agents of his change. If we see hungry people, we’re not to respond, “Aww; I hope God feeds you.” We’re to feed ’em. Mt 25.35 We’re to clothe the naked, not leave it to some local clothing drive. We’re to cure the sick, not Medicare nor some private HMO. We’re to visit prisoners, not case workers and journalists and the occasional do-gooder. We’re meant to act, not wish really hard.

Often that’s the Holy Spirit’s very answer to our prayers. “You really want justice done? About time; so do I. I’m sending you to go do something about it.” Just like he sent Moses to Egypt to go free his people. Problem is, we balk exactly like Moses.

Exodus 4.10-17 KWL
10 Moses told the LORD, “My Master, I’m not a man of words.
Not yesterday, not in the past, nor now that you speak to me your slave.
For I have a heavy mouth and heavy tongue.”
11 The LORD told Moses, “Who installed Adam’s mouth?
Who makes one mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Isn’t it I, the LORD?
12 Now go. I’m with your mouth. I taught you what to speak.”
13 Moses told the LORD, “Please send, send a different hand.”
14 The LORD’s nose burned at Moses, and he said, “Isn’t Aaron your brother? The Levite?
I know he can speak my message.
Look, he’s coming to meet you. When he sees you he’ll rejoice in his heart.
15 Speak to him. Put the words in his mouth.
I’m with your mouth and his mouth, and will show you both what to do.
16 He speaks for you to the Hebrews.
That’s him. He’s your mouth. You’re his ‘god.’
17 And take this staff in your hand. Do the miracles with it.”

But unlike Moses, who finally did act and freed his people, we pretend we heard nothing, or assume God’s call is our delusion. So we do nothing.

It’s that lack of faith and action which really frosts the critics. Even pagans know how prayer’s supposed to work: Praying Christians oughta be active Christians, not passive. When we’re passive, they realize something’s inconsistent and wrong with us. When our behavior produces bad fruit, they realize God’s not really among us. So of course they think we’re only talking to the sky: We aren’t proving otherwise!

At the very least, a Christian who’s praying for the needy, yet doing nothing because they’re not entirely sure they oughta do anything, oughta be more compassionate. Oughta mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who suffer, listen to them vent and rage and cry, and not just throw paper towels at ’em. After all, aren’t they crying out to God for help? Shouldn’t some of that concern overflow into their daily actions? Yet if we see nothing (sometimes because their misplaced machismo won’t let ’em publicly reveal their emotions), we realize something’s awry. Every expert hypocrite knows they need to fake sympathy, at the very least.

So when Christians truly are thinking and praying for the needy, we oughta see it in them. If we can’t, they likely aren’t.