Some Thoughts About "Thoughts and Prayers"
We suffer under an awful national liturgy.
A senseless act of violence sends a tidal wave of horror across the nation. As deep wounds are reopened once again, some offer thoughts and prayers. Others call for action. And still others begin to curse the very mention of thoughts and prayers.
What are we to make of "thoughts and prayers?" Are these medicine for the grieving, or salt on an open wound—a reminder that we live in a world where God often seems absent?
For those critical of thoughts and prayers, I would offer the following.
First, I get it. Even the prophet Isaiah once marveled during a time of national crisis, "Truly, you are a God who hides himself" (Isaiah 45:15). At times it seems as if God is absent in this world. However, the Scriptures do not hide this sentiment in some dark corner.
Both Job (who was called "blameless and upright") and the prophet Jeremiah (who was chosen by God to speak his word), both suffered to the point of cursing the day of their birth (Job 3:1-24; Jeremiah 20:14). They did not have happy-clappy thoughts and prayers on hand when personal and national tragedy crushed them.
Many of the Psalms are the same. David cries out with pain during his affliction:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning. Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest (Psalm 22:1-2).
It just so happens that these were the thoughts and prayers of Jesus during the agony of his crucifixion (see Matthew 27:46). As the crowds passed by, they hurled insults at him—"What good are your prayers doing now, Jesus?" (Matthew 27:38-44). Raw words of lament are not even foreign to God incarnate.
In a world of instant access to just about everything, we may chafe at how seemingly ineffective prayer is. And yet, the Scriptures live in this world of apparently unanswered prayers much more comfortably than we do.
Second, I would point out that the Scriptures lead Christians to a different set of expectations about prayer. The message of the cross is about death and resurrection—crushing defeat and decisive victory. Living and praying in between these two realities is often perplexing.
I think this tension is what Paul is getting at in the eight chapter of his letter to the Romans. Paul writes to people who have great expectations for the future—a deep hope that makes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness look like pocket change. However, as God's people long and pray for the realization of such hope, there's also a lot of waiting and suffering in between. The suffering that Paul talks about in this chapter isn't first world problem stuff. It's the kind of things that cause people to question the usefulness of praying at all. He writes:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Romans 8:35)
What Paul is implying here is that any of these awful things could happen—even in spite of many prayers (see Romans 8:26-27). To put it more bluntly, the scenes we recently saw on the news could have taken place at any moment for the Christians in Rome. If they had the wrong expectations about prayer, they would have had to conclude that God was not listening. However, Paul points them to a present answer—"nothing can separate us from the love of God" (8:39)—and to a greater future answer—"the glory that is to be revealed to us" (8:18).
Third, if you are someone who is very vocal about your disdain for thoughts and prayers, could it be that you've missed the point? Is a time of national mourning really a time to argue about how people mourn? I understand that much of the ire against "thoughts and prayers" is really a complaint against those who are willing to offer sentiments but strangely absent when it comes to addressing social and policy issues related to violence. However, such indiscriminate anger doesn't do justice to the many people who are offering prayers along with action. Prayer and action are meant to go hand in hand, not in isolation. Even if you have disdain for prayers during times of national tragedy, wouldn't it be better to focus such energy on action rather than argument over how one offers solace to hurting people? Would you gripe at the person standing in front of you in the greeting line at a funeral because she offered her "thoughts and prayers?" That would be really small, wouldn't you agree?
For those offering "thoughts and prayers"
And now for some thoughts for those who are quick to offer "thoughts and prayers" in times of tragedy. These are not meant to be accusatory. Rather, I offer them for thoughtful consideration and self-examination.
First, what do we mean by thoughts? Does this mean that we are taking to heart unspeakable suffering—that it is on the forefront of our minds and not a forgotten headlines among other news headlines? Or by "thoughts" do we mean something more like "good vibes?" There's an eternity of difference between sending out positive thoughts to people and praying the Lord's prayer. One doesn't do anything. The other does.
Second, who are we directing our prayers to? Is this a sort of generic deity that supports the ideals of the American dream, or is this the "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," who really may allow us to suffer unspeakable things in spite of our prayers, but who will always cause all things to work together for our good in Christ? (Romans 8:28).
Third, are "thoughts and prayers" offered because we are genuinely concerned and praying? Or do we say these words because we either don't know what to say in the midst of such awful things, because we are performing some kind of obligatory public lament, or both?
Fourth, could silence be a more fitting response? This is what Job's friends did when they encountered his suffering (Job 2:13). Jesus speaks about going into a closet to pray rather than out on a street corner (Matthew 6:5-15). Perhaps instead of posting on social media it would be better to anonymously kneel before God in prayer, or even better, to go to that place where people have a habit of praying together—church.
Fifth, do our thoughts and prayers also have actions? "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:17). I suppose you could also say that prayer without action is dead as well. At times this action will occur at high levels—the level of law and public policy. Most often that action will be as close as our families, neighbors, acquaintances, and the strangers who live near us. That will take a lot more effort than "thoughts and prayers," and will also require much more courage than all of the collective anger against such "thoughts and prayers."
Heavenly Father, God of all concord and peace, it is Your gracious will that Your children on earth live together in harmony and peace. Defeat the plans of all those who would stir up violence and strife, destroy the weapons of those who delight in war and bloodshed, and, according to Your will, end all conflicts in the world. Teach us to examine our hearts that we way recognize our own inclination toward envy, malice, hatred, and enmity. Help us, by Your Word and Spirit, to search our hearts, and to root out the evil that would lead to strife and discord, so that in our lives we may be at peace with all people. Fill us with a zeal for the work of Your Church and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone can bring that peace which is beyond all understanding; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. (LSB 229).