Posted by: Jack Brown | February 19, 2018

Thoughts on Thoughts and Prayers

Once again we find ourselves as a nation trying to make sense of something that makes no sense at all: the theft of precious lives in a mass murder by a sick individual. And sure enough, once again our polarized society rushes to social media to make their position clear. They use passionate words, catchy sound bites, statistics, quotes…you name it…all to venerate those they consider heroes and condemn those they consider to be at fault.

In the case of gun violence, the lines are pretty clear. Both sides have their tells, their go-to voices and their common arguments. But you’ve probably noticed that in the past year or so there’s been a new focus on the immediate response that many share in the wake of such a tragedy: the sharing of “thoughts and prayers.” In short, it has become not just the subject of mockery, but anger and hatred emanating from those who believe that offering thoughts and prayers amounts to inaction.

I get where the anger comes from. Offering “thoughts and prayers” is an easy thing to do, and no doubt many of those who offer them in a public way are doing so more to be seen doing so. And it’s true, many of those who offer “thoughts and prayers” are the very ones who refuse to act, who have done nothing and nothing again in the face of horrible atrocities. In those cases I, too, find the offering of “thoughts and prayers” to be shallow and self-serving.

But let’s make something clear here–the anger is towards the inaction, isn’t it? We’re not angry that people say they’re offering “thoughts and prayers,” but rather that they do so without putting any substance to their supposed grief and/or outrage, right? Then why are people directing their anger towards the “thoughts and prayers?” I’ve seen many comments and tweets like this one in recent days:

My first reaction when I read something like this is anger. I consider myself a compassionate person, and I can imagine thousands of compassionate people who feel helpless in the wake of something like the Florida school shooting offering what they can in these terms. Even more than that, I believe in the power of prayer. I don’t think offering prayer is doing nothing. But then my anger subsides, and I find myself facing a question: how is that people in this country have become so cynical towards offerings of support like this?

Yes, government is certainly to blame. That’s who most people are thinking of when they lash out at “thoughts and prayers.” But that’s not the only direction the venom is spit. I’ve seen friends of mine torn to shreds online for offering something akin to their thoughts and prayers towards those who suffer tragedy, vilified as if they were just as cowardly as those who have the power to do something but don’t. But all they were doing was trying to express their compassion, to share what’s in their hearts as they grieve a world where such things happen. It’s very sad.

How did we get to this point? That’s a great question. The hatred of “thoughts and prayers” is, at heart, a vitriol directed at those who talk a good game but put no skin in it. But while the phrase has become associated with politicians in Washington, D.C., I think the distrust and cynicism stem from somewhere else.

I said earlier I believe in the power of prayer. But too often in my Christian walk…as a friend, as a family member, as a pastor…that’s all I’m willing to offer. Most of the time those I’m praying for appreciate it because they, too, believe in the power of prayer. They know that prayer isn’t inaction.

But that’s not what our culture believes. They doubt the power of prayer…they doubt the existence of someone to whom prayer is offered. And what’s more–they have witnessed time and again a church that is great at saying they’re full of compassion while displaying none. Or worse–displaying the opposite of compassion. At the extreme end of the spectrum, people have witnessed a direct link between prayer and the kind of hatred that’s tearing our country apart:

I know you and I would never display a sign like that. But what are we displaying? What are we coupling with our prayers to demonstrate to a doubting, cynical world that those who pray are not merely proclaimers of compassion, but practicers of it as well?

Our culture is looking for people who will put skin in the game–who will care enough about the wrongs in our society (at all levels) to actually do something about it. That’s what we’re called to do. That’s what Jesus did–his coming to Earth was God literally putting skin in the game. How might we also embrace an incarnate faith that not only impacts how we think and pray, but how we reach out to a hurting world?

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”–James 2:14-17



  1. Thanks, Jack. I enjoy your thought provoking pieces. Prayer is not one of my spiritual gifts, still I do try. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get through the day.

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