We all do it. Someone tells us about the difficult time they are going through – illness, family death, too much month left and not enough money – and we respond by telling them that they are in our thoughts and prayers. We usually follow this by offering to help in practical ways. We might cook a meal and take it over to the bereaved family. We might take some magazines when we visit the ill person in the hospital. We might drop a gift card from the local supermarket through the letter box of the person struggling to make ends meet this month. We might offer a listening ear (which if you are feeling alone in your struggles can make a huge difference!)
A lot of talk about thoughts and prayers has been in US national dialogue on responding to mass shootings. People are fed up of people offering thoughts and prayers and seemingly nothing changes until another shooting and people offer thoughts and prayers again. I get that. I understand the frustration.
But thoughts and prayers aren’t the problem. Stopping thoughts and prayers is not the solution.
Rather I’d encourage us to rethink our thinking on thoughts and prayers.
What exactly are we doing as we think and pray?
What Jesus Did
It’s a familiar story. A person is struggling with an illness or physical concern. Other people stay away from this person. (Maybe they don’t want to catch it? Maybe they think they brought it upon themselves? Maybe they don’t know how to help? Maybe “out of sight and out of mind”?) Some people send thoughts and prayers as they walk on by, getting on with their daily life. (Just like when I drive by the homeless man and his dog by the artwork bench on the High Street in my town. I pray for him as I drive by. I’m not proud of this.)
Jesus though doesn’t walk/drive by. He usually strikes up a conversation. Sometimes he asks for a drink of water, and sometimes Jesus asks the question, “What can I do for you?”
Does this mean Jesus never thought or prayed? Clearly Jesus prayed. He often goes off on his own to be with his heavenly Dad. Clearly Jesus thought. The parables he used that brought Torah principles to life by speaking of them in everyday language using the events of everyday life showed a lot of thought. (It matters that sons run away from their families and equally that these runaways are welcomed back home by the fathers and the siblings. And hey, isn’t that like us and God??) Jesus had a very strict interpretation of some parts of Torah. “Don’t murder someone. Yea that’s a good start, but I say don’t even get angry at someone. Don’t even shout ‘You idiot!’ at your brother or sister.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
At this point, I need to apologise to my brother for all the arguments over Monopoly…
Jesus clearly thought about peoples’ situations, read scripture, and talk with God about all these concerns (prayed).
But here’s the thing – in response to all these thoughts and prayers, Jesus’ actions were affected. He did things differently from the status quo. He didn’t walk by. He didn’t fear spiritual contamination. He asked the risky question – “What can I do for you?”
What is Prayer?
Prayer is not just saying some words. Prayer is not an incantation, like abracadabra or expecto patronum. Prayer is a heartfelt conversation between a person and God. As such, thoughts and prayers should lead to a changed heart and then to changed action. As we prayerfully consider a person’s situation and take that to God, the hope is we will hear God’s heart on the matter. Because we are human, chances are our hearts will be slightly out of sync with God, but then brought back in sync as we pray and read scripture. Chances are as we do this, we will start to see the situation and person as God does and then be led to take some action. To ask the Christ-like question, “How can I help you?”
For Christ’s Sake, What Can We Do?
Sometimes thoughts and prayers is all we have. Our lives may be so full of stuff that we are drowning in our own messes. We may be physically too far away from the situation to be of practical use. But let’s be honest, sometimes we just do not want to get involved. Getting involved is risky. Getting involved might mean that I (or you) have to change. My schedule or routine or daily whatever might alter. What I thought was important for today suddenly shifts to what the other person needs or considers important.
We do this naturally for friends and family members. But what about strangers?
Keep thinking and praying, but remember that prayer is a two way street. God will speak back. He may use your family, a sermon, a story in the Bible or even high schoolers from Florida. But He will speak.
The hope is that when He does – our hearts will be changed to be more in sync with His, and that what we do will change in response to better understanding God’s heart on a matter.
Because it’s our hearts God is interested in.
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23 ESV)
Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:18 ESV)
Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34b ESV)
“For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:10 ESV)
“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jeremiah 17:10 ESV)
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10 ESV)
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove your heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heat of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:36 ESV)