Are “Thoughts and Prayers” Useless?

It has become fashionable of late to disparage “thoughts and prayers.” When a public tragedy takes place, whether a natural disaster or a shooting, people and pundits alike take pot shots at praying men and women, suggesting that prayer to “an invisible sky deity” is folly.

In one sense, I agree. Somehow mere thought became lumped together with prayer. These are not the same so let’s separate them. Let’s agree that merely thinking something positive about another person does that person no good. Let’s agree that there really is no such thing as “sending” a thought to another person in another place. None of us is a telepath, and thoughts don’t possess wings.

Prayer, however, is a different thing entirely. Prayer proceeds from the conviction that God is. If God is not, then prayer is indeed folly. But if God is not then no one should be upset about hurricanes or murderers. Survival of the fittest specimens of an accidental species inhabiting a random blue dot in an ocean of space should not concern any of us. Unless of course, like Ebenezer Scrooge, you think it best to “decrease the surplus population.” After all, we humans are destroying the earth, altering its temperature, polluting its oceans, and ruining its rain forests. If there is no God, then maybe you should hope for more natural disasters. Maybe mass shooters are doing us all a favor.

But of course they are not doing favors. They are wicked, murderous, and evil, and in their wickedness they do not destroy a random species of valueless ape on an accidental planet. They are killing human beings. And human beings have value, for God exists, and he created us in his own image, and therefore we matter. Profoundly. Even though many deny God’s existence, those same people who deny him still value God’s image bearers—they call human death a tragedy—for the reality that God exists is burned into their souls, and they cannot escape it.

That means that prayer offers access to enormous power. Power to heal. Power to comfort. Power to supply material relief. Power to bring justice. Power to move mountains. James 5:16 teaches: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working,” not because the righteous person is a powerful person, but because the God to whom the righteous person prays is a powerful God. Jesus prayed, and he taught his followers to pray, and to trust the power and character of the God to whom they committed their prayers.

To suggest that prayer is useless is to deny the existence, personality, and providential care of God, all while valuing those who bear his image, despite the fact that atheism provides no reason to value a human being more than a slug or a weed.

So I’ll continue to pray for wounded families. I will pour out my heart in compassion before the living Savior, who knows what it means to suffer. I will trust that the “man of sorrows” who was “familiar with grief” is able to care for the broken hearts of shattered men and women. And I’ll also do very practical things, like teach anyone who will listen that God is, that you bear his image, and that you and every other human being have value—inherent, God-given value. I will teach everyone with ears, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and, “You shall not murder,” and, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I’ll keep preaching that you are your brother’s keeper and that you must take care of the least among you. I will continue to sit with the dying at their hospital bedside, meet with their grieving family members in their homes, and weep with them as they lay their loved ones to rest. I will ask God to change the world the only way it ever will change or has changed: one heart at a time, as he graciously rescues us from the guilt and power and consequences of our own sin.

Let the atheist pundit disparage prayer. He is only disparaging his own value. Let him believe that prayer drifts ever upward to a non-existent sky deity. Christ reigns and the earth is his footstool. Let him fancy that solutions to the problem of the human heart come from better legislation.

Christian, let him do all that. And then, “Continue steadfastly in prayer.” In fact, pray also for the pundit, for he is unable to pray for himself, and he needs the very prayers he disparages.

One thought on “Are “Thoughts and Prayers” Useless?

  1. I have actually run into a number of people that, while not disparaging “thought and prayers”, have rung the bell that this is not enough, even with their/our sincere prayers.. As you illustrate in your noble actions beyond and including thoughts and prayers with those whom you serve, there are others who have advocated and illustrated a different method in confronting and healing the pervasive ills and pains of our society beyond “thoughts and prayers’. Methods within their domain and passions, different but not necessarily conflicting with your pastoral duties, which can also prove to be noble actions in and of themselves. Many of their reasons for calling out that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough seem quite reasonable to me, as do your reasons of the same that bring out your love and care of your congregation. What may seem a disparaging comment or barb actually may not be. In my experience, the majority of the “thoughts and prayers” comments I’ve encountered come from a better place than your experience seems to suggest, granted not always presented so judiciously. Nevertheless, I usually know where they are coming from. I wonder if “thoughts and prayers”, as politically divisive as that term has become, would have been better left out of this post in particular. Still, the post is essential.
    Thoughts and prayers, then do something…


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