They were overly harsh, and a little insensitive. But don’t be too quick to dismiss their criticism.
It’s become the obligatory gesture following any tragedy. As soon as the news breaks, everyone on Facebook and Twitter send their “thoughts and prayers” to anyone impacted by whatever happened. It’s become so cliche, that significant push back finally bubbled to the surface after yesterday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino.
But can followers of Jesus look past the harsh tone and insensitivity of those mocking our prayers, and dare to ask a hard question: What if they’re right?
As I process this in my own mind, here’s a few thoughts worth considering:
- “I’m praying for you” has lost it’s meaning. There’s so many meaningless phrases in our culture. One of the funniest appears when we casually run into someone at the office. We say, “Hey! How are you?” But we really don’t care at all how they’re doing. It’s just another way of saying “Hello!” Unfortunately, lots of Christians have turned “I’m praying for you” into another empty phrase. I confess I’ve done it more times than I can count. We usually don’t intend to actually pray for someone. It’s a phrase that’s been reduced to a momentary expression of sympathy.
- “Thoughts” don’t offer tangible value in a national crisis. When you’re dating, it’s sweet to tell your significant other that you’re thinking about them. If a friend is sick, an “I’m thinking of you card” is a kind gesture. But what tangible value do our “thoughts” have for strangers suffering in a tragedy thousands of miles away? Will fleeting “thoughts” produce solutions to an epidemic of mass shootings in America? What does sending thoughts have to do with the Christian faith? While those expressing this certainly mean well, I can see how a frustrated non religious public could roll their eyes at us when we say it.
- They don’t consider prayer to be a productive response. I believe in the power of prayer. It’s a bedrock practice for followers of Jesus, and an intimate means of connecting with the Creator of the Universe. It’s also an essential first response in times of personal and public crisis. But people who aren’t religious think it’s silly, pointless and weak. Should that surprise us? They view our reliance on prayer with the same level of absurdity as we see their belief in evolution. It would be foolish to allow ourselves to be frustrated or offended by those who don’t share our belief in prayer. Nor can we expect them to think prayer is helpful and productive.
- Faith without works is dead. Prayer isn’t a destination. It’s a thick thread woven into the fabric of our struggles and our triumphs. Far too often, we treat it as the beginning and the end of problem solving. How foolish would it be to look for a job by locking yourself in the house, praying really hard, and waiting for the phone to ring? Obviously, you’d want to pray without ceasing while simultaneously filling out applications, networking and brushing up your resume. Prayer and action go together. In that sense, I get it that non religious people would be frustrated by our contributions on social media to solving a mass shooting epidemic. We’re offering prayers without much else. When we start offering creative ideas and actively engaging in ground level solutions, maybe they’ll welcome our prayers. Let’s not forget what James said,
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. (James 2:14-17)
Harsh words hurt. Critiques are hard to swallow. But we’d be wise to take our public perception seriously. A healthy dose of humility might allow us to see past heated emotions and unfair critiques, and enable us to learn something about ourselves. In so doing, maybe we’d even draw skeptics closer to Jesus.