“Sending thoughts and prayers.” If you are on social media or watch the news you almost certainly have seen this phrase. You might have even written it. In many ways it has become cliché. A phrase that many people throw around without thinking. Although at its face this phrase seems innocent, it recently has caused some people to express their outrage at the comment.
A few weeks ago I posted on a Facebook group asking Atheists how they respond to someone who is going through intense suffering. I received many great and insightful responses. One of the comments that stuck out to me was by a man named Donnie.
“I can reveal what expression p***** off many atheists; ‘sending thoughts and prayers”
When I asked why it was so upsetting he responded,
“Because, this is derived of any factual help and only strengthens the faith of the ‘well-wisher’ who believes they can ‘poke’ their deity because of the special position they have (‘In touch with the creator of the Universe’) without a shred of evidence that their religious ‘abilities’ are any real. And, why the believer wouldn’t say, ‘Fasting and praying about you’? This at least would involve action on the side of the ‘well-wisher’.”
Later he added,
“It totally replaces any practical help and amounts exactly to doing nothing.”
Donnie is not the only one who feels this way. In fact several others echoed Donnie’s concern in the same conversation thread. As Christians we need to take criticisms like this seriously and honestly evaluate the phrase, “sending thoughts and prayers.” Should Christians use this phrase and if so what are the dangers we should be aware of?
To begin with, I want to examine the statement “sending thoughts and prayers.” The first part “sending thoughts” is an idea that is foreign from the Christian faith. Nowhere in the Scriptures do thoughts have power outside of the life of the thinker. The Bible does not say we can send positive or negative energy; or that our thoughts can cover a suffering person with a telepathic feeling of peace. That being said, thoughts do have a significant ability to influence the actions and behaviors of the thinker. Matthew 15:19 says,
19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.
Evil desires lead to evil thoughts and evil thoughts manifest into evil actions. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” What we think about matters and has the power to influence the way we interact in the world.
We are not called to “send” positive thoughts to people who are suffering. We are instructed to think godly thoughts in order that we can produce godly actions. Our thoughts have the ability to transform our lives so that we can become the type of people who can give aid and love to someone who is suffering.
The second part, “sending prayers” is a foundational belief in Christianity and a common practice among followers of Jesus Christ. Looking at the Scriptures we are repeatedly instructed to pray. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells Christians to “pray continually”. The primary difference between thought and prayer in the Christian worldview is that prayer is a communal activity involving the person praying and God, while thought is an internal activity only in the mind of the thinker.
It has to be stated that the Bible does not describe prayer as a tool wielded by the righteous to bribe or manipulate the action of God. God is not a genie in our service to grant us every wish. In fact several times throughout the New Testament we find Jesus and His disciples criticizing people for using prayer as a means to puff themselves up or satisfy a selfish desire. Prayer is about aligning our will with God’s, not about trying to force God to submit to our will.
God in His grace has given all of humanity the opportunity to come before Him in prayer. In prayer we can come before God with our praise, thanksgiving, and burdens. Especially in times of trouble Christians are instructed to pray, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
So why do we pray for others who are suffering? We pray for the suffering because the Bible tells us that God can offer comfort, peace, and healing. God is actively working to restore this fallen world, which has been corrupted by sin. Prayer is our opportunity to participate in God’s work of restoration. Scripture informs us that God hears our prayers and is actively working in the world around us, often times through prayer. James 5:16 describes prayer as both “powerful and effective.”
In prayer we can encounter God, and because of this encounter we will be changed. Our priorities, passions, and activities will become more aligned with God’s priorities, passions, and activities. Prayer is an aspect of God’s work in the world and as Christians we should never abandon it. I have seen God’s work through prayer in my own life and in the lives of those around me, and it is because of the power of prayer I have witnessed that I continue to pray.
Praying for those who are suffering is a necessary activity of those who follow Jesus Christ. We should not steer away from or be ashamed of praying for people, or letting them know we are praying for them.
Should Christians post, “sending thoughts and prayers?” It would not be accurate to say we are “sending thoughts”, however we could confidently say something like, “thinking about you and praying for you.” Although this still may frustrate some people, Christians have been instructed to pray, and believe in the power of prayer and so to neglect it would be disobedient to God and uncaring for those who are suffering.
So what is the danger in writing a post expressing our sympathy and intention to pray? Many people who type, “Sending thoughts and prayers” end there. They scroll down to the next post satisfied that they have done their part. How many of us pray that God will send comfort to a suffering person but make no effort to offer the comfort He has enabled us to supply? How many of us say we are praying, but then fall into the snare of apathetic complacency? I know I have been guilty of this at certain points in my life, and my suspicion is that I am not alone. Donnie’s comments should carry with them a weight of conviction for many Christians.
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells about the final judgment and in it He describes the scene before the throne.
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
We are called to care for the sick, poor, and suffering. To use the life we have been given to glorify God by loving His creation. By showing love for His creation we truly show love for Him. This is a difficult step for many people to take because this requires sacrifice. It requires the people of God to get out from behind their computer screens and use the resources and abilities that God has blessed them with to show the love of God to everyone around them. God may have already given us the ability to be the answer to someone’s prayer. We could be the source of comfort for an individual crippled by sorrow. We could be the hand that can help rebuild a broken home. We could be the ones who give food to the hungry. We are the body of Christ and we have been blessed with the opportunity to be instruments of His work in the world.
So yes continue to pray. Pray without ceasing. Pray that God would comfort the sick and broken, that He would defend the abused, and rescue the hurting. But also pray that He would give you the opportunity to be His hands and feet in the world. Pray that God would reveal to you the ways that you can show His love to the hurting in your present circumstance. We should not be ashamed of our prayers, but we should be ashamed if we use prayer as an excuse to ignore the opportunities God has given us to act.
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
1 John 3:17-18
-Nathan Phillips, Associate Pastor of the River Alliance Church