One of the objections against Christians that is particularly ‘in vogue’ now is when someone, particularly a politician, responds to a tragedy saying something such as ‘Thoughts and prayers to the victims of the shooting today’. In a world where tragedies seem to come one after the other, the notion of ‘thoughts and prayers’ is apparently quite offensive to some people. This, to me, is for a couple different reasons. First, in a culture increasing in secular thought there is a correspondingly larger percentage of the population willing to dismiss prayer on principle. Secondly, to them, thoughts and prayers contribute absolutely nothing to a solution. Third, they assume the sentiment of thoughts and prayers is all that one has to say on an issue, as if there was an extra coded phrase ‘…now let’s never speak of this issue again’ attached to the statement offering thoughts and prayers.
I’d admit to having a few questions for these people. What if the responder merely said ‘thoughts’ instead of ‘thoughts and prayers’? Would that have changed your response at all? If so, why? Does an expression of thoughts and prayers preclude a person from doing anything else? Do you, as a critic, have any specific ideas about what should be done about the tragedy to advance the response beyond thoughts and prayers? How about anything you yourself have done? And are you sure the responder has not considered that?
For the same reason that thinking or praying over a job search doesn’t mean you won’t actually get out and look for stuff, an instinctive reaction to thoughts and prayers as the problem rather than the solution is, well, perhaps part of the problem itself.
First off, a Christian should LIVE prayerfully. In 1 Timothy 2:1, Paul says that ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings’ should be made for all people. Notice the wide variety of reasons to go to God given here. We should supplicate (humbly ask) God for the needs of others. We should pray to the Lord for others. We should intercede (act as an advocate) for other people. And we should give thanks to the Lord for the good in other’s lives. This is all good, and pleasing to God that we approach Him for both the good and bad (1 Timothy 2:3). Hence, if anything, it would be worse if a Christian did NOT pray over tragedies in our day, as they would anything else.
Now, what can praying actually accomplish in this kind of situation? Well, both experience and the Bible tell us that praying usually won’t make the problem go away at once. It’s a mistake to think that prayer is an easy way for a Christian to get whatever he or she wants. Prayer is a way for us to keep God at the center of our life, our hope around which everything else revolves. Common prayers for tragedy include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Comfort/healing for the victims and their friends and family members, as well as the person praying. More generally, for anyone affected in some way.
- Lament for what has happened
- Justice, if the situation is caused by man
- A quick and effective response from emergency responders
- What the person praying can do to help, if possible.
- Salvation for the perpetrator (and glory be to God, this is not unheard of!)
These reasons are, of course, very dependent on the circumstances. The point, however, is that prayer does not completely leave to God what is our responsibility. Rather, prayer complements action. In Jesus’s day, many of the religious authorities made it known to all how supposedly pious they were, but their prayer was not accompanied by selfless behavior. Jesus charged these people with being hypocrites (for example, see Luke 11:37-52). In the Old Testament, the Israelites were also this way at various points in time.
As for the answers to prayer, God operates on His own schedule, and answers us according to that—often in ways we do not expect. While God doesn’t create evil, He does use it for good. It is not an accident that church attendance in New York City grew noticeably after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Those events leave many seeking a higher power, even some who normally stay away from religion. Besides church attendance, there are many stories both heard and unheard of marvelous good done in the wake of tragedy. Christians realize that since Adam and Eve, the first people created by God (Genesis 2-3), the world has been steeped in sin, evil, and suffering, which manifests (among many other ways, be they natural or caused by man) in tragedies like mass shootings. John 16:33, among other verses, illustrates the hope we have in Jesus, a hope that the world cannot give us, a hope based on His promises and the proof of His resurrection. And so we pray, because we know that looking to God first in these times is the right thing to do.
Our article on God and evil
On ‘Thought and ‘Prayers’ After the San Bernardino Shooting from Christianity Today, and The Gospel Coalition’s summary of that article.
It Happens After Prayer by H.B. Charles Jr.