In the aftermath of the recent church shooting in Texas, many people sent “thoughts and prayers” via social media to the families of the victims. This was met with a chorus of frustration, anger, and – in some instances – hatred, by many people on the Left. For instance, one of my favorite performers (until now) Michael McKean, tweeted this:

Another person on Twitter had this to say:

Comments like this reflect such a gross misunderstanding of what Christians believe about prayer that I wanted to set forth some basic points from Scripture about prayer.

First, prayer is fundamentally about aligning our will to God’s, not aligning God’s will to ours. Prayer does not function like Aladdin’s magic lamp. God is not like a genie who grants us three wishes, whatever they may be. Prayer is part of a broader relationship between us and God. In my relationship with my wife, I sometimes ask her to do things for me (#1 on the list: “Could you bring me a glass of water”!). But that isn’t the only reason I speak to her, or even the primary reason. The primary reason we talk is to deepen our relationship.

And the same is true with regard to prayer. Just moments before Jesus was arrested, he prayed:

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)

Notice that this simple prayer is bracketed by reference to God’s will. “If you are willing…not my will, but yours be done.” Did Jesus make a request? Of course. But was that the primary focus of his prayer? No. Jesus was connecting with the Father to make sure God’s will and his will were in harmony.

This is precisely how Jesus taught his followers to pray:

Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Are we to make requests to God? Absolutely! But is this the primary focus of prayer? No. This prayer begins with a triple emphasis on the will of God – God’s name is hallowed; God’s kingdom (rule) is to come; God’s will is to be done. This is the vital and primary purpose of prayer.

Second, it is absurd to think that the only options are either to pray and do nothing or not pray and do something. Nobody – NOBODY – is suggesting this ridiculous false choice. EVERYONE who prays also agrees that we need to do something in the face of these shootings. But just exactly WHAT that should be is a matter of debate. For some people, though, the only possible option is to accept their particular views of gun control legislation or else you really aren’t in favor of doing anything. I am hardly a Second Amendment absolutist (I think the original understanding of the language clearly has to do with state militias). But in cases like the Texas shooting, further legislation would not have helped, anyway. This was a failure to properly enforce and execute the laws that already exist. It is just so frustrating that the vast majority of political debates in our country consist of these sorts of juvenile “either/or” false dichotomies from both the Left and the Right.

The larger spiritual point to make here is that no one in Scripture ever suggested that the options are either pray for something OR do something. This is not an either/or choice; it is a both/and enterprise. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says that we should pray for our daily bread. But Scripture also says:

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Which is it – pray for bread or work for it? Obviously, the answer is both. And in fact, Scripture very pointedly says that just wishing for something without actually working for something is nothing more than empty faith:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

This is precisely why those who have been holding prayer vigils and other memorials have also been using these gatherings to donate blood and money for the victims and their families. It is the same reason that even as I diligently pray for my wife’s healing we still make use of every treatment our oncologist recommends. So just because those who pray don’t happen to support the same policy proposals you favor, don’t assume that means they believe in prayer alone. That is manifestly untrue.

Third, much of the criticism of “thoughts and prayers” assumes a worldview that is rejected by those who pray. Both of the tweets I cited earlier make a big point of this terrible shooting taking place in church while people were praying, as if to say that the suffering of Christians somehow undermines the efficacy of prayer. I don’t know any other way to put this – have these guys never read any history? The Bible itself is filled with examples of people who believed in God but who also suffered, like, you know, JESUS! And he was arrested while he was praying!

The underlying worldview of these critics denies that God exists, or that anything other than the material world exists. In this worldview, prayer does not connect the worshiper with spiritual realities; prayer is something that can be “shot right out of” someone. This is why prayer in the face of tragedy is so pointless to them.

But this is not how Christians look at reality. We believe that God exists, that Jesus died and rose again, that this life is not all that there is. And we believe that God hears our prayers. Sometimes this means that he rescues us from the storm. Other times, it means he bears us up to face the storm. But either way, the storm is not the end of the story, so long as we draw near to him. As he faced imminent death, Paul prayed:

The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:18)

And I believe God answered this prayer, not by keeping Paul from death, but by welcoming him into eternal life.

When someone says, “prayers didn’t do anything for the people who were shot,” I want to ask – HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY KNOW THAT?!?!?!?! If people pray like Jesus taught and exemplified, those prayers bring the worshiper into closer union with God. And those of us praying for the families are hoping the same for them. Such prayers are only meaningless to those who do not think a relationship with God is the most important thing any person could pursue.

But for those who do seek God above all else,  that is what thoughts and prayers are ultimately about.