There is little left to say when it comes to mass shootings in America. Politicians, pundits and pastors have scarcely finished trotting out their last round of condolences and talking points then they have to return to their respective pulpits, expected to have fresh insights.
It’s difficult because, increasingly, our collective grief is not just for the victims, but for our country at large. Why? Why are so many people being shot in the United States of America? Can it be stopped? What can anyone do in the face of such senseless, reckless violence?
Perhaps it’s because of this that people turn to the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” Whatever else gunmen are able to do, they cannot take away our ability to think and pray. It’s comforting for us to be able to offer some little piece of ourselves. Whether or not it’s actually comforting for those immediately affected by the shootings is a question only they can answer.
But in the light of the most recent shooting (as of this writing, anyway), a growing wave of frustration regarding “thoughts and prayers” reached a new fever pitch, so much so that Emma Green at The Atlantic coined a new term: “prayer shaming.”
“GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS” The New York Post declared this morning, evidently confident in some anonymous source close to the Almighty. A widely circulated batch of tweets from Think Progress contributing editor Igor Volsky compared and contrasted politicians’ tweets about “thoughts and prayers” to the donations they received from the National Rifle Association. #ThoughtsAndPrayers started trending on Twitter, with most of the contributions being some variation on the following:
Perhaps The Nation editor George Zornick captured the mood best with this picture:
Compare + contrast: pic.twitter.com/vWXoIHd1Uy
— George Zornick (@gzornick) December 2, 2015
It’s an interesting contrast, no doubt, and Zornick says a lot by saying very little. In this worldview, there are two options: pray or act. Some people are content to sit around, heads bowed and hands folded, all but inviting another mass killing tomorrow. Others understand that the time for prayer has ended and now is the time to act. That’s a very stark binary.
It’s easy for Christians to take such sentiments personally.
Many of them seem intended to be taken so. But Christians should also be able to understand where this apparent frustration is coming from. Mass shootings continue to happen in America. According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. leads the world in mass shootings by a supremely depressing margin (65 percent higher per capita than the Philippines, our closest competitor, as of 2015.)
In the face of all that, the repeated refrain for thoughts and prayers seems empty. We’ve been thinking and praying since Columbine, and the problem seems worse now than it did when we started.
So the question then, is this: Is it prayer that is ineffectual, or the pray-ers?
The Prayer of the Righteous
For its part, the writers of the Bible are convinced that “The earnest prayer of the righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (James 5:16). Notice James’ qualifications here. Though this verse is often pared down to a slogan as simple as “prayer works!”, James is making a nuanced point. When the prayer is earnest and the pray-er is righteous, you can expect big things.
So what does that mean for us? We, who don’t always feel very righteous? And for the prayers we offer on Twitter, where so little is actually earnest?
For that, we turn to Jesus, who paints a vivid picture in Matthew 6.
“‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
Are people like former President Barack Obama, Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Jeb Bush and all the rest that have offered prayers thinking that “they will be heard because of their many words”? Do they shut the door and pray in secret along with their rhetoric? Let’s hope so. It’s impossible to know. All we can do is look to our own motives.
Prayer Changes Us
“I used to believe that prayer changes things. But now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.” Mother Teresa said that, and history has no record of anyone ever telling Mother Teresa they were sick and tired of her prayers.
Perhaps that’s because Mother Teresa understood the words of Jesus and James—that prayer is not a substitute for action, or even preparation for action. It’s something much more fluid and powerful. It is the holding of ourselves and others nearer to God, that the shalom of God might be made manifest in our lives. It’s not passive. On the contrary, God is in the business of creation, and those who love Him are joining Him every day in the work of redeeming all things. It’s a very active thing.
Perhaps it’s best to say that prayer and action are at their best when they are in harmony, and if we are serious when we say “our prayers are with you,” then our prayers must be in intimate relationship with redemptive work. Comfort for the afflicted. Justice for the innocent. Change for the future.
So maybe the question isn’t “do thoughts and prayers do any good?” but “What kind of good do we intend to do with our thoughts and prayers?” Because whatever value there might be in telling God how sorry we are about our broken world, there can be little doubt that there’s more value in asking Him to give His people a desire to heal it.
Editor’s note: A version of this piece first ran in 2015.