Are ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ a ‘Cruel Joke’?

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August 8, 2019  |  READ TIME: 5 minutes
In The Daily Article today:

  • A “contrarian” questions the relevance of praying for survivors
  • A remarkable example of the power of answered prayer
  • Eleven ways to pray and a shocking newspaper article
Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post and a bestselling author. He has also been characterized as “extravagantly contrarian” and “one of the most extreme ideologues in the business.”

Consider, for example, the title of his column following last weekend’s shootings: “Republicans’ thoughts and prayers have become a cruel joke.” Milbank cites dozens of such statements responding to the tragedies. He notes that “thoughts and prayers are always welcome,” but then claims that this “reflexive response to the endless massacres has become a cruel joke, as effective as a Hallmark sympathy card.”

Milbank believes that offering prayer is “what people say when they plan to do nothing.” To those who criticize his criticism, he responds: “We criticize prayer in lieu of action.”

I agree with Milbank that if we promise to pray but do nothing else, we have not done enough. As James notes, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

However, like so many in our secular culture, Milbank seems to think that we must choose between “prayer” and “action,” that if we pray for victims, we are not acting on their behalf. And he believes that until Republicans act as he thinks they should, “We don’t have a prayer.”

“Our community came together through prayer”

Last Sunday morning, as the horrific news was still breaking from El Paso and Dayton, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was on CBS’s Face the Nation. He was asked about the massacre four years ago when a white racist murdered nine African Americans at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.

Sen. Scott began his response to the weekend shootings: “What a challenging time. Our prayers and thoughts are certainly with both communities.” After describing the tragedy that happened in his state, he then declared: “The good news for our community was that our community came together through prayer.”

Here’s why I’m quoting from his interview today: the senator continued, “A lot of folks say that prayers don’t matter. Well I will disagree with them vehemently. Because of prayer, the . . . nine family members forgave the shooter and brought unity into our state in a way that we have not seen in the history of the state, frankly.

“The Civil War started in Charleston and to have a white racist walk into the door of a black church to start, according to his objective, ‘a race riot,’ [and] to have the actual opposite occur because of the power of faith in that church and in our community was fantastic and phenomenal.”

Two powerful results of prayer

Our secular culture and its journalists might be surprised by the senator’s testimony, but Christians are not. We know that when we pray, two things happen: We ask God to do what he can do, and he empowers us to do what we can do.

When Elijah asked God to bring a dead child back to life, “the Lordlistened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:22).

After Jonah warned Nineveh of God’s coming judgment, their king commanded his people to “call out mightily to God” (Jonah 3:8). Then “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (10).

When King Herod imprisoned Peter, “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:5). God responded by sending his angel to liberate the apostle and save his life.

However, as James noted, we must both pray and act (James 2:14–26). In fact, when we pray for people, we connect personally with God in a way that often empowers us to answer our prayers.

For instance, Jesus instructed his disciples to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Here’s what came next: “He called to him his twelve disciples” and sent them out in his name (Matthew 10:1).

A shocking newspaper article

How should we pray and then act on our prayers?

First, we should intercede specifically and directly for shooting victims and their families.

Taylor Schumann, who was shot when a gunman opened fire at New River Community College in Virginia six years ago, wrote a remarkable article for Christianity Today listing eleven specific ways we can pray for people like her. I have begun praying as she suggests and encourage you to join me.

Second, we should look for ways to serve those near us.

This Washington Post article shocked me: “Mass shooting incidents probably happened closer to you than you think.” The article locates all the mass killings in America since 2014, then allows us to enter our zip code so we can see how many such tragedies occurred near where we live.

When I entered my zip code, I was told that over the last five years there have been three mass shootings in my county, two mass shootings within ten miles of my home, and thirty mass shootings within one hundred miles of my home.

If you’ll ask God to direct you to a shooting survivor or someone else in need of your compassion, he will answer your prayer. That’s because his word teaches us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Paul Shane Spear observed: “As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person.” In her latest blog, my wife responds to the need for Christians to make a proactive difference in our broken culture with this observation: “If God’s people won’t share the light, we are just increasing the darkness.”

With whom will you share the light today?


Read our latest contributed article:

In “Five surefire ways to start a conversation with a Muslim,” Shane Bennett shares simple ways to engage Muslims in conversation. May these suggestions prove helpful to you as you share Christ during your day.

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