The dreadful mass killing in a Texas church last Sunday once again brought forward a recent phenomenon creeping into social media, that is, the idea that we should abandon the notion of “thoughts and prayers” in favour of gun control in the United States.
This piece is not about gun control in the United States. I am not an American; I am not entitled to an opinion about US domestic policy or constitutional law. This piece is, instead, about “thoughts and prayers” – something with which I have some experience.
Is there a flippancy with which we toss out that we are offering “thoughts and prayers” when we see word of a tragedy? Perhaps. If we type something like that on a post about an unfortunate event on social media, without acting on it, then the gesture is as flippant as the all-too-common “How are you?” question, for which the interlocutor really doesn’t want an answer anyway.
For some people, perhaps “thoughts and prayers” has become a benign term of sympathy. After all, in the face of adversity, many people don’t know what to say to others. (Have you ever paid attention to what people say when they greet mourners at a funeral visitation? Often, they fill the air with meaningless words in an attempt to cover up the fact that they don’t know what to say. Perhaps the next trend we’ll see in the funeral home will be people walking up to grieving friends and greeting them with the words, “thoughts and prayers.” It sounds preposterous, but I don’t think it’s a stretch.)
If typing “thoughts and prayers” is as phony as air-kissing, though, let’s abandon it. But what if thinking about, and praying for, troubled individuals or grieving family members or challenging situations actually did some good? Would we continue to do it?
Prayer is conversation with God, and conversation with God – for the faithful – is always comforting (or at least centring). And those who are prayed for usually feel encouraged, knowing that they are being supported by others. (It is a different, and rather more challenging, question as to whether or not prayer can change the mind of God, but we’re not going there today.)
So if we actually pray when we offer “thoughts and prayers”, then carry on! I know how much it matters to me that others pray for me, and when I pray for others, I seek to let them know in some meaningful way. Maybe there’s a way we can communicate that we are praying for those suffering in tragic situations that doesn’t sound flippant.
Then, the challenge for us who pray is this: if God calls us to act as a result of our prayers, will we? Perhaps it isn’t necessary to separate praying for people from acting to ameliorate their situations.
“Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him” (1 Chronicles 16.11, NLT).