It’s become a cliché at this point: tragedy hits, people offer their “thoughts and prayers”, and public (and not-so-public) figures rush the stage to be the first to decry such heartless hate speech. It’s a crass impulse, one born of anti-Christian sentiment in many cases, no doubt (cc: Chris Pratt). But there’s another factor subtly at work here--one that’s insinuated itself into American ideas of pop religiosity. And it’s partly our fault.
Granted, many who sneer at these innocuous expressions of sympathy are saying faith must be accompanied by action. “Thoughts and prayers”, they argue, can be empty words substituting for doing good. In this they are right. Biblical, even. Christianity doesn’t teach that prayer takes the place of feeding the hungry or caring for orphans. Of course, some of these complaints are rooted in false perceptions, such as the (mistaken) stereotype of religious Americans as uncharitable, just because they don’t want to outsource that charity to the power of the State. Sometimes, it’s simply policy disagreement: Why won’t you do X?? Well, because X doesn’t work, so let’s do Y.
But others are more directly dismissive of the “thoughts and prayers” project—brazenly deriding prayer as impotent, a waste of time (looking at you, Neil deGrasse Tyson, George Takei, Michael Ian Black...). People claim they’re praying, bad stuff happens nonetheless, and skeptics take this as proof it’s futile. This should strike an orthodox Christ-follower as odd, but it’s a perfect read on the pulse of modern notions of “spirituality”. We live in an increasingly syncretistic culture, one where Christian trappings share a bed with Eastern mysticism, New Age superstition, and bland, inclusive Deism blithely claiming Jesus as its mascot (cf. Oprah). The stumbling block that emerges from this is a confusion of what actual prayer is--a theological chimera in which prayer is unwittingly identified with magic. This point cannot be stressed enough: a prayer is not a spell. People who are into the so-called “metaphysical” (check your local bookstore...or don’t.) speak of “putting good thoughts” or “sending positive vibes” out into the universe. This isn’t prayer. It’s paganism. It shows up in the nonsensical expression “sending prayers your way”--that’s meaningless. If I end up in the ICU, please don’t send prayers my way. Flowers, balloons, Amazon gift cards are more than welcome; but I can’t do a thing with your prayer for the simple reason that I’m not God. Send prayers “up”, not sideways. This sort of muddled thinking gets us hacky phrases like “thoughts and prayers”, and it implies to the skeptical world that we’re just another cult. The so-called “power of prayer” is a gross misnomer. Certainly, the Bible tells us, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power...” (James 5:16), but it doesn’t mean the prayer is inherently effective in some supernatural way; it’s stating that a righteous person--one who knows the one true God well by faith--receives a bountiful return on their time in the prayer closet because the all-powerful God of the universe graciously answers them in accordance with His will. The pray-er is powerless; the Lord is all.
If in this, the most gospelized nation on Earth, our fellow Americans are under the impression that our prayers are akin to wannabe Jedi using the Force, we need to redo our job. If they reckon we’re just deluded wishful-thinkers attempting to quell gun violence or rebuild Puerto Rico with our psychic powers, Neil deGrasse Tyson is completely justified in exposing this as fraud in the harsh light of statistics. But woe to us if we have given safe haven to such heresy. If, in the midst of the fray of the culture wars, we’ve tolerated practices and language more consonant with Crowley than Christ just to gain allies against the secular world, we’re compromising the Gospel, and we’re failing our responsibility as priests to the world, teaching them nothing of the Sovereign King of scripture, merely another iteration of worldly superstition, encrypted in Christianese as it may be.
The irony here is that a right understanding of prayer is the direct counterpoint to skeptics’ scorn for vapid “thoughts and prayers” platitudes. More often than not, they’re crying out for political action--perhaps most urgently, for calls and petitions to our political leaders. And here’s the thing: that’s what prayer is. We approach the seat of the King, the highest ruler of the Earth, and we seek His merciful, authoritative resolution of the situation. So in effect, when they rage, the scoffers are begging you, “Enough with the ‘praying’; go ask a ruling power to intervene for us in our time of need!”
That, of course, raises a troubling question for the esteemed Dr. Tyson: If you contact your Congressman, but federal policies don’t change, is this statistical proof that government doesn’t work?