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In Defense of ‘Thoughts and Prayers’

After an atrocity, is anything but action just a waste of time?

In 2016, an online programmer created a satirical website called “Thoughts & Prayers: the Game.” It invites you to try to prevent a mass shooting by clicking a “pray” button or a “think” button, but each time you do it just leads to another atrocity. If you try to click “ban assault weapons,” the screen tells you that you’re “weak” or “un-American.” Inevitably, the game ends with a tally of thoughts and prayers but the same number of lives saved: zero.

That came to mind recently when, in the wake of three mass shootings, California senator and presidential hopeful Kamala Harris urged “no more thoughts and prayers.” We need action, she continued, providing a link to donate to gun-control organizations. This echoes past comments from atheist talk-show personality Bill Maher and many others across the social media spectrum.

Are they right? Is thinking and praying in the face of evil just a waste of time?

Now, our faith has a principle behind it, found in the letter of James, that asks what good it is if you say to someone who is cold or who is hungry “Go be warm” or “Be well-fed” but do nothing to provide for his needs. That’s why the Church believes in good works, like the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, help the poor, visit the imprisoned, help and heal the sick, and so on.

But, as human beings, we’re limited in what we can do. Often we just have to face the fact that in the world we live in, bad things happen and we can’t prevent them from happening. All we can do is ask the all-powerful, all-loving God in whom we believe to help mitigate suffering in the world and know that through his providence he orders it to the good for those who believe in him and that the scales of injustice and suffering will be balanced in the next life.

So how do we respond to those who say these things are worthless, that what we need instead is action?

I think a lot of people in the secular world assume that we’re praying (or thinking really hard about answers) so that atrocities like mass shooting never happen again. But I don’t think that’s our first intention. It’s one of the prayers we will say, but it’s not the immediate thing.

The immediate thing we pray for is the souls of the deceased. The secular world assumes that these people are simply gone, out of existence, but we know that God’s plan for us is immortality. Death is not the end. The souls of these victims still exist, and they need our prayers.

This is an important witness to the world, a reminder that when our loved ones die they are not beyond our care and help. We may think we have run out of time, have left so much undone and unsaid. But there is still much we may do and say on their behalf. We can pray for their purification. We can pray for their salvation. We pray hoping that God will have mercy . . . for God to have mercy on their souls, to welcome him into his kingdom.

There is nothing more “practical” than this.

I’m sorry, we can say to our cynical or unbelieving friends. I’m still going to offer prayers in the face of these disasters because your merely worldly solutions aren’t enough.

The second group that needs our prayers is the survivors. Whether it’s a mass shooting or an earthquake, there will be people left alive but burdened with grief and sadness and anger. We can listen to them, be empathetic, but God is the one who heals and brings peace to such people. Only he can get inside their hearts. And so we pray.

There’s a great passage from St. Paul where he writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to come for those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation, and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-7).

God allows us to suffer in this life; we don’t always know why. That’s part of the mystery of sin, of living in a fallen world. But God is also able to comfort us, which means that through prayer we can help bring God’s comfort to others. Through another mystery—that of intercessory prayer—we can help others experience the love of God that gives peace to their souls.

God’s love and peace don’t mean that people’s sadness will be instantly gone. But they are an antidote to hopelessness. They are guides as people walk through their pain, showing them that they can manage it and find meaning in it rather than dwelling in a pit of darkness.

And of course, our prayers must include a plea for God’s grace to heal our culture and to give us wisdom, knowledge, and prudence to make wise political and societal changes that will reduce the incidence of crimes and disasters. And our thoughts should be directed toward choices that maximize the good we can do for other people.

Those are at least my “thoughts and prayers.” I hope they’ll be yours, too, as we all work together to build up God’s kingdom on Earth and testify that he is real and that he loves us.

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