On Sunday, the United States responded to a major tragedy directed this time towards a group of Christians. This group of Christians, meeting together to exercise their guaranteed rights to do so and expressing their devotion to the one, true God. The tragedy that unfolded became just like any other, sparking little compassion and grief and instead became an opportunity for politicization (a discussion for another post).
This time though, the response offered something a bit different. Because the shooting occurred in a church, people felt free to exercise another guaranteed right, that of free speech. That expression took the form of one of two major options: those who offered up their ‘thoughts and prayers to the victims’ and those who disparaged the remark as empty (reasoning that supposedly prayers weren’t strong enough of the people in the church to protect them from what too place). The absurdity, and downright disrespect (and even crudeness sometimes) of the comments is quite appalling and indicates much about an uninformed culture trying to influence discussion of things they know little about. Thus it necessitates that we consider what is the significance behind the phrase of ‘thoughts and prayers’ and whether it is even a valid utterance.
The concept of sending thoughts and prayers to those who have faced dire circumstances can be traced back at least 200 years. However, the actual origin of it seems to be somewhat obscured. In recent years (especially since about the year 2000) its usage has increased significantly. Now, when the phrase is used there are many who make judgments and interpretations about both the phrase and the person saying it. However, those interpretations are inadequate and it is important to note what ‘thoughts and prayers’ does not do:
- It Does Not Identify a Christian: Many people use this phrase to conclude that the person saying it is a Christian. However, that is not necessarily true. First, they may subscribe to another religion, although there are many people who use the phrase that don’t identify with any religion at all, including Christianity.
- It Does Not Identify the Bible: Second, despite what many think, this is not a biblical phrase. One may argue that Christians are compelled to be thinkers (Proverbs 1:9; 9:10) and are certainly exhorted to pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17). However, the concept of giving someone thoughts and prayers is not found in the Bible.
- It Does Not Identify Action: Finally, while many are quick to tweet the phrase or utter in quick passing, rarely does it ever indicate action by the person utilizing it. In fact, more often than not, it’s a phrase used to deflect any need to take action at all.
These are the major inferences made by many people when the phrase is used. However, at best they are incomplete, and at worst they are inaccurate. Therefore, it is important to urge caution when making judgments about those who send out their thoughts and prayers to others.
While it is dangerous to make interpretations about those who are using the phrase, there are certain things that should be highlighted. In fact, the use of ‘thoughts and prayers’ can tell us the following:
- It Illustrates Political Correctness: For many people, the phrase is simply a manner in which to appease the establishment by being politically correct.
- It Illustrates a Desire for God’s Will: When used correctly (that’s a major point here, IF used correctly) prayer indicates a desire for God’s will. That fact that someone prayed and yet these acts of violence continue is not indicative that prayer does not work (instead it indicates that man is sinful). Praying should include a desire for God’s will be done and that he be glorified, but God’s will does not always mirror our wants and expectations.
- It Illustrates Our Need: Additionally, when used correctly, prayer indicates our need for God. It’s an acknowledgment that we need God to intervene in our life and we trust him to do so in such a way that is consistent with his character, even if we do not have full comprehension of that.
In looking at these illustrations, it is important to make the distinction between those who are utilizing the concept of prayer in a biblical manner versus those who are not.
Instead of justifying inaction with hallow words, if one is going to utter the phrase “My thoughts and prayers are with you” one should maintain a level of accountability that generates follow through. That means first, to think. Think about what has taken place in these difficult circumstances because it allows one to contemplate the plight of God and the plight of man. Such thought should give way to a remorse over sin and a compassion to those affected by the tragedy. Furthermore, one should pray, obviously. However, prayer must be predicated not upon what man expects prayer to be but what God desires it to be. Thus, pray is done with the intention of understanding and exalting God in light of the circumstances. Finally, the phrase should translate to people of action. It should not be used as a way to sidestep responsibility, but instead utilized as an opportunity. Certainly these situations are difficult, which is why many would rather avoid involvement. However, the easy way is not always the right way. Instead, action should accompany thoughts and prayers. Therefore, now utilized as a form of political correctness, the phrase ’thoughts and prayers’ is not really biblical or indicative of christianity. In many ways then, I would urge avoiding it simply because of the shallowness and lack of commitment that they indicate. Yet the constant use of them should cause us to consider how we truly respond when tragedy strikes.
Photo “Refreshing the Soul” courtesy of user Art4TheGloryOfGod by Sharon and Flickr.