As a former economist and current pastor, I was intrigued by an article in the news with this attention-grabbing headline: “Not everybody wants thoughts and prayers after a disaster, according to a study of hurricane survivors.” (https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/16/health/thoughts-prayers-study-wellness-trnd/index.html)
One of the authors of this study said this: “The idea came from the mere observation of how frequently these gestures are used … and yet how controversial they seem to be, as shown by the heated debate in the US about the value of thoughts and prayers in the wake of disasters … As a result, we wanted to find out how people actually value these frequently used gestures.”
Researchers focused on more than 400 residents in North Carolina (the state where I live) following Hurricane Florence’s destruction in 2018. And what they discovered is that while Christians value offers of prayer from religious people, some atheists and agnostics would pay money to avoid having people pray for them.
This study is just one example of the controversy surrounding “thoughts and prayers” these days. One of the reasons for this, it seems to me, is that many people see “thoughts and prayers” as a way of avoiding taking actual action. The top definition in urbandictionary.com for “thoughts and prayers” is this: “An expression of indifference to tragedy intended to seem empathetic … Hollow gestures trivializing loss.” (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Thoughts%20and%20prayers )
How unfortunate! And, if we’re honest, we can acknowledge that perhaps there have been times when we ourselves have offered “thoughts and prayers” intending to seem empathetic, but without a sincere desire to do anything concrete. It’s so easy to offer our thoughts and prayers and then move on without giving it, well, another thought.
But what if everyone who offered their thoughts and prayers really thought about it (whatever “it” is) and really prayed about it? What if we spent some time really thinking about a particular issue, rather than just listening to everyone else’s opinions about it, and then spent some time really talking and listening to God about it?
I think that would be incredible, because I truly believe that our thoughts and prayers – when we are really thinking and praying about something – can and often do lead to concrete action. Prayer – genuine, sincere, prayer – often changes our thoughts, which inevitably changes our actions. Prayer may not always change God, but it will always change us. As Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) That is what prayer does – it renews our minds and helps us to discern the will of God. And this changes how we live our lives.
Thoughts and prayers, in other words, matter, because thoughts lead to action, and because prayers invite God to change our thoughts and actions.
So, I plan to continue offering my thoughts and prayers to people in this world who want and need them. And I plan to continue thinking and praying about the important issues in our world. But when I do these things, I am also going to make sure that I really am thinking and praying about these things, and I am going to try to always be open to the changes that God might bring about in me through these same thoughts and prayers.