On “Thoughts And Prayers”

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.

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12 responses to “On “Thoughts And Prayers”

    • Thanks! And yes, I love that post of yours! If anyone else is reading these comments: go read at the link!

      I’ve written about this before too, in a few different ways – it’s one of those things that seems to be a recurring problem, unfortunately.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I just found a comment you left on my August 25th post that was somehow not seen by me, and it was stuck in pending. So sorry! I approved it, and replied.

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  1. Great post! I think you really pulled out the fact that most people say I am praying for these tragedies in a very superficial way. But what about the people that do it to bring attention to a tragedy because it is not getting enough attention in the present moment? Is that wrong to do?

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    • Thanks! 🙂

      I don’t know that I’d say it’s “wrong” per se, especially if you are actually praying and you are using the words meaningfully! It’s never wrong to pray for something/someone that needs prayer, or to say that if you feel led. But there are lots of other ways to bring attention to things too, I think – on a global and local level.

      The main danger with this phrase, I think, is just using it in “a very superficial way,” as you beautifully put it.

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      • I agree! There are other ways to bring attention to it. I think we do get caught up in the surface level, half-hearted lukewarm responses instead of having empathy. love this post, it makes me think about how deep do I feel for others and if I can say more than the cliche

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  2. Greta post with a very important point! This is why I always actually take a moment to pray for the Lord to move on behalf of a person or situation after telling them I will pray. I immediately pray if possible. I honestly do this though because I know my human nature has a tendency to get sidetracked and forget to pray because of that. Kind of like losing one’s train of thought.

    Imagine how many more prayers would go up and their effect if people really did pray when they said things like “sending prayers your way” and such.

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  3. Thank you for calling us out on this. I struggle with saying these words because I am prone to forget my promise. A dear friend of mine handles situations like this very well; she will stop in the moment and pray with me. The times that she has done this with me have been so much more encouraging than if she had just promised to pray at a later time. Her prayers have filled me with renewed strength and hope about the situation.

    Your posts always seem to challenge and encourage me in my walk with God. Thank you for your faithfulness to provoke others to good works.

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    • It’s human to forget, I think – I do, too, and so do a lot of people I know. The “stop immediately and pray” response really is the wise one – it’s heartfelt and meaningful, and gets us to do what we intend!

      And thank you so much – I’m so glad you’re enjoying the posts. I love writing them, and it’s always encouraging to hear from people who are grappling with the same issues that I do. 🙂

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