You have probably seen it on Facebook. You might have thought it or said it yourself. People are ripping on those who say after a shooting or other crisis, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
In May 2018, AJ Willingham with CNN wrote an article titled, “How ‘thoughts and prayers’ went from common condolence to cynical meme.” The article began by asserting that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become so repeated it has lost its meaning. Willingham wrote that people are cynical about the phrase because “no one is doing much else besides offering thoughts and prayers.”
The Source of the Criticism
The source of the criticism is inaction. The critics are bothered by those who say, “Boston Strong,” “Pray for Paris,” or most recently with hurricane Michael that just went west of where I live, “Florida Strong,” and then take no meaningful action to relieve suffering or prevent future occurrences when possible. “You are in my thoughts and prayers” is now heard by many as a quick way of dealing with the shock and then moving on without doing anything.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr, wrote in a November 2017 article in The Washington Post, “What does it mean when a political leader says that the nation’s ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with those who are in sorrow and grief? It could mean nothing. Or even worse than nothing, the words could be evasive and misleading, covering political irresponsibility or conveying no more than empty sentiment.“ That is the problem. People’s lives are turned on end, a murderous rampage has occurred, or a natural disaster has struck, and the great masses respond with “empty sentiment.”
In his 2015 Netflix special, comedian Anthony Jeselnik makes fun of people who run post on social media words like, "my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston" on the day of the bombing. To the cheers of his crowd, Jeselnik says, “Do you know what that is worth? F***ing nothing....Less than nothing.” Dripping with cynicism, he says that response is not about giving time, money, or compassion. It is a way for those people to garner attention in the face of a tragedy. “Those people are worthless and deserve to be made fun of,” he says. And his crowd loved it.
Most critics are not diminishing thinking and praying. They are saying it is not good if those words mean nothing. They are saying it is not good when there is inaction, “empty sentiment,” and it becomes more about the person saying the “thoughts and prayers” than the victims. They are saying we can and should respond with more action to help suffering people or with social issues of the day.
This is taught in the Bible. When someone is in need, don’t give them verbal platitudes. “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16). Answer: it’s no good. At least for the Christians, ours in an activist faith.
So, do something. It’s a point well taken. You decide what action to take, but do something.
No Shaming Here
Having said that, don’t apologize for expressing your condolences. Resist that temptation. Express your condolences unapologetically. If critics really mean “do something,” then the burden is on them to say that without trying to shame people for expressing heartfelt condolences. If critics really mean “do the thing I want you to do and nothing else,” then the burden is on them to be clear about that. Anything less comes across as judging feelings, which then comes across as being a jerk.
Don’t back down here. There is no shaming here. If your thoughts and prayers are real, there is nothing wrong with expressing them. Don’t let anyone try to shame you into silence for saying so. Besides, thoughts and prayers are a form of action. I have a high view of the power of thoughts as well as what God has done, can do, and will do as a result of prayer. Thoughts and prayers matter.
I love the saying, “No problem can withstand the sustained assault of constant thinking.” It’s been a helpful saying for me many times. The reality is what we think about, we bring about. If we think about relieving suffering, we work toward it. If we are thinking about righting a social wrong, we work toward it.
Actually thinking about a person or a situation and letting them know that is letting them know they matter. It is letting them know that of all of the options for brain space, their situation, their crisis, matters so much that you are turning over in your mind thoughts of how to help.
Prayer comes out of a relationship with God. Prayer is personal communication with God. For those who believe in God, that is staggering to consider. We humans get to talk openly to the One we believe is the primordial mover and shaker of the universe. This God asks us to pray, hears us when we pray, and responds to our prayers. In prayer, we bare our souls to God — we thank God for good parts of life, seek forgiveness for where we have failed, and ask for help for ourselves and for others.
When you pray for another person, you are affecting the situation or the people or both. There is a woman at my church who asks me almost every week, “Pastor, how can I pray for you?” And I know she prays because she asks me about things afterward. When I tell her about what God does she often says, “Look at that…another prayer answered by God.” She knows prayer made a difference.
It is true that many prayers are unanswered for the moment. Other prayers are answered clearly with a “no.” But there are also countless prayers answered with modern-day miracles. People of faith know the source of the miracle. God is at work in this world.
So if you are actually praying, you are doing a powerful work. Your prayers matter.
Let them Know
If you can work to relieve human suffering or affect social change, go for it. But whether or not you do that, when some tragedy or crisis happens and your thoughts and prayers are focused on the people and situation, put it out there. Post it. Speak it. Let others know. It is an important and beautiful act of kindness that is at the same time powerful and effective.
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