Whether the result of an increasing ideological chasm, or the priggishness of discourse in the internet age, we have reached a new societal low. In the wake of the most recent mass shooting, we see increased criticism of a simple expression of support: “thoughts and prayers.” Critics say that prayer isn’t work, that actions are required, and that such clichés are used by those who don’t desire real change.
It would be tempting to ask those who criticize prayer as “not enough” to list the tangible activities they have done in order to enact change. If “thoughts and prayers” doesn’t count as work, neither should “raising awareness” through retweeting the Huffington Post. But perhaps a modicum of grace, rare in social media, should be extended to all. We can’t see into the prayers or charitable lives of our internet interlocutors, and we should lead with the assumption that most Americans want to support victims of mass violence and support efforts to decrease violence in our society.
As Christians, we may not believe that prayer is everything, but we do believe it is of the utmost importance. We should note four things concerning prayer and action.
1. Prayer Is Action
I imagine America’s increasing secularism and the animosity toward simple declarations of prayer are related. For those who have abandoned belief in an involved God, humanity is left to our own devices. We must achieve by manipulating the material world, the narrative goes; otherwise it’s not “real work.” Of course, abandoning belief in the transcendent and spiritual means there’s only the immanent and material.
But as Christians, we believe prayer actually accomplishes something. We believe that God hears our prayers, and that things change as a result. As James says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Whether the change is internal or external, small or big, God shows up when we pray.
2. Prayer May Spur Further Action
When we pray, our heart is softened to the needs of those around us. We become sensitive to the suffering of others, and often God plants within us ideas to act on our love for others. For Christians, prayer is the spring from which our love and mercy for others flows. Prayer is where we awaken to the needs of those around us—and to the specific calling God has given us to care for those needs.
3. Our Prayers and Actions Are Limited
This is perhaps the most difficult reality we must face. We are finite beings, limited to our corporeal bodies by time and space. We can’t be everywhere at the same time, so we must choose where we will serve, whom we will love, and what we will advocate. I can’t do relief work in Houston and Puerto Rico at the same time. If my money were divided equally to every area of need in the country, it would amount to less than a penny per need.
I can’t make a substantial difference to every issue plaguing our country. Advocating to redress the multiple causes of gun violence—whether it be mental illness, domestic abuse, racism, or the preponderance of lethal firearms—demands sustained time and attention. So do my responsibilities as a spouse, as a friend, as a son, and as a pastor.
Perhaps one of the most pernicious aspects of social media is how it overwhelms us with the problems of the world and insists that we can and should make a difference in solving all of them. Of course we can’t, and our carnivorous social media consumption only leaves us with the indigestion of despair.
Our carnivorous social media consumption only leaves us with the indigestion of despair.
But, in prayer, we discover what we can do: the handful of things given to us by God. And with these few things, we can participate with God in making a real difference. Perhaps our labors will be grandiose. Perhaps we’ll drop what we’re doing, move to Washington, and start lobbying. Or perhaps, in a much smaller yet equally important way, we counsel that couple with the dysfunctional marriage in our congregation, winning a small victory over the power of evil in our midst. Either way, we can pray both for those who are far off and those who are near, knowing that even if our labors are directed more to the near, our prayers for those far off will not go unheeded.
4. We Must Actually Pray
If we post “thoughts and prayers” on Facebook, we should immediately turn off our phone, get on our knees, and pray in earnest. Otherwise our critics are validated in denouncing the triteness of prayer, and God is displeased with our false witness.
Whether you are someone who has made your declarations known, criticized the declarations of others, or had your thoughts known only by God, the invitation is the same: Kneel before the God of the universe, humbly seek his help and intervention, and ask him how he might use you as a vessel of justice and peace in the world.