Why Secular Leftists Are Half-Right about "Thoughts & Prayers"

It’s true—thoughts do nothing.
Prayer, however…is a political act.

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?

Prayer is so poorly taught in Churches, and so misunderstood among even 'strong' believers, that it's no wonder we get these messages. simply look at the types of things most prayed about in Scripture--especially the New Testament, post-resurrection era: it's not healing for cancer, successful hip replacement or an end to tragedy. The vast majority of New Testament prayers are for hearts and minds to be changed and for God to be known accurately.

Now, where does your fellowship put most of its energy into praying? Probably the same place as done mine: all those physical ailments, traveling mercies, job searches, etc. When we stop to think about it, we might actually conclude that our actions DO follow our prayers, as those are the very things that we are focused on, too!

What if PARENTS too responsibility for Deuteronomy 6 as instructed? What if we taught our kids that there is something actually MORE important that what college they will choose and what career they will follow? What if our kids grew up understanding that helping others find a room in "God's Mansion" is much more important that finding a mansion here in which we can hide away from the world? What if our kids really saw in their parents and believed for themselves that living out a consistent testimony was infinitely more important than getting a good test score (not that being a good student isn't part of that testimony!)?

When Paul prayed for the church at Colossae, he told them, "...we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light."

When was the last time we prayed for THAT for the kids of our schools? When was the last time that we taught our kids that THAT is their purpose for GOING to school? To help others see, hear, know & understand the gospel by living that kind of life? When did we last remind them that Instagram, Snapchat, facebook, YouTube and all the other social media outlets can be used for THAT purpose?

If we were more faithful in that regard, then maybe we wouldn't be so frustrated that "God has been taken out of the public schools". He hasn't been. He can't be, at least not unless His people forget the reason that we're there.

This is what I have been saying too, man's heart is evil and therein lies the problem. The only fix is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, the only Hope for Real Change.

"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?" - Well done. Hoisted by his own petard.

Well said. We tend to treat Jesus as our genie and prayer as our way of rubbing the lamp and identifying our wishes. It isn't that praying for these things it is wrong, but it becomes so when our focus in on ourselves and our personal comfort and happiness, verses greater things, such as lost souls and the knowledge of His Word. As you said, where is our focus in prayer, is it on us or on Him?

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14 King James Version (KJV)
What is this verse saying to us about how we should pray and what we should pray for? Seek God first and foremost, then we need to take a good look at the wicked ways we are living and stop doing the "wicked" things we are doing. Reading the bible verses in the Old Testament we find that time after time the Isralites would go their own way -- and they always ended up getting into trouble. It wasn't until they sought God and did what he told them to do that they prospered. When bad things happen our prayer should always be seeking God's "face" first, then asking for Him to heal.