The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become ubiquitous in the face of tragedy.
Thoughts and prayers to those in Las Vegas. Thoughts and prayers to the flood victims. Thoughts and prayers to the families who lost loved ones. Thoughts and prayers to those wounded…
It’s also spawned a backlash. People are tired of hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers” when those thoughts and prayers don’t seem to be accompanied by any meaningful action or when they’re dashed off as an empty, perfunctory statement.
I understand the anger. The truth is that the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” or the offhanded promise “I’m praying for you,” can be empty. It can be performative. It can be meaningless. And before believers utter it – whether in text, on Twitter, in person, or anywhere else – we’d do well to ask ourselves a few questions and to think about what it is we’re really saying.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before throwing out a casual “thoughts and prayers”:
Am I using this phrase as shorthand for something else?
A lot of times I find that people – especially online – use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” not because they have any intention of praying or because they are making an implicit promise to do so, but rather because they want to express their sadness and empathy and find those words an easy way to do so. Therefore, when they write “thoughts and prayers with _____” what they really mean is something like “My condolences about ____” or “I am so sad to hear about ____” or even “____ is heartbreaking.”
In these cases, it’s best to say what we mean. Don’t fall back on “thoughts and prayers” as a tired old shorthand; doing so demeans the privilege of prayer and the very nature of it. Rather, say what you are thinking instead: “I’m so sorry to hear about ____. I was sick when I heard the news and my heart goes out to everyone involved.”
Am I being performative?
I have no scientific evidence for this, but I am willing to bet that the promises of “thoughts and prayers” have shot up 900% since the advent of Twitter and social media. Offering “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of tragedies or to those hurting has become a social ritual, a way to perform grief and to show people we care about something. It’s a collective thing, a way of us participating in a social display of sadness or mourning – and sometimes it’s done not because we are actually praying, or caring, but because we want others to see us praying or caring. Occasionally this phrase is something that people say when they want to look like they care.
But the Bible has a few thoughts about performative prayer: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matt. 6:5).
A lot of people misinterpret this verse to mean “it is always wrong to pray in public” or “anyone who prays in public is a hypocrite.” Not so. What this verse means is that praying to be seen by others is a problem. If that is your main motivation – to be seen by others rather than to communicate with God – then you have a problem. When offering “thoughts and prayers” is a performative act, therefore, something done for the benefit of others and not a matter of communication between us and God, then it’s a problem.
In others words: don’t throw out the phrase for the benefit of others or for your own image.
Am I really going to pray?
I mean, that’s the question, isn’t it? When you say “I’m sending thoughts and prayers,” are you really going to pray? Have you? Are you doing something more than offering a sympathetic nod, or are your “thoughts and prayers” as empty as the “sending positive thoughts” or “sending positive energy” wishes that so often pop up online? Prayer is not a general well-wish and cluck of the tongue in the general direction of a tragedy.
Prayer is conversation with God. Prayer is the privilege of being able to speak to God as we are, through the redemptive intervention of Jesus Christ, without needing an intermediary. If you’re offering “thoughts and prayers” without actually, you know, praying, you’re engaging in falsity and using a privileged means of communication with God as cheap currency for socially-performed sympathy.
Will your prayer have feet?
Prayer certainly need not always be accompanied by action. But when we have the chance to serve in Christ, and that service dovetails with prayer, then we really ought to take advantage of the opportunity. Along with offering “thoughts and prayers,” keep an eye to see if there is something you can actually do: helping put together a flood bucket for flood victims, donating money where it is needed, sending books/water/necessary supplies where required, and so on. The love and concern that we express in prayer is something that God always desires us to share outwardly, as much as we can.
So, in the end, it’s not the phrase “thoughts and prayers” that is necessarily the problem. It’s that, all too often, we take the things of God too lightly and treat them without much thought – and I am as guilty of that as anyone. If we consider our actions and words more thoughtfully, we’ll be able to keep them aligned with God’s will and desires, and go about what He wants us to do here with truth, grace, and sincerity.