Few things about human nature are as predictable as our instinctive readiness to empathize with those who suffer, and perhaps the assurance that our “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims is the most common phrase used in this regard. But with the rise of the social media in recent years, this response to tragedy has increasingly come under attack from various individuals and publications in a world that is reeling with pain. It has been challenged in connection with terrorist attacks in many parts of the world – from Nairobi and Paris to Jos and San Bernardino. At the heart of the criticism is the claim that action, not aphorisms and platitudes, is the appropriate response to tragedy.
As I write, various media outlets are still responding to the heinous slaughter of innocent human beings that happened in San Bernardino, California, last Wednesday by ridiculing those who say that they are praying for the victims. Apart from the fact that such a response runs the risk of being insensitive to the victims in the worst possible moments, not to mention the many others who are grieving and pleading with God to help them come to terms with such a horrendous evil, the premise upon which the criticism rests is deeply flawed. But rather than respond directly to the ridicule, I would like to interpret the criticism charitably and address what I think is a legitimate question behind the surface issue; is there any benefit at all to offering “thoughts and prayers” in the face of tragedy? I think the answer to this question is an emphatic yes!
First, we should note that not everyone who decries the instinctive use of aphorisms and platitudes in the face of tragedy is speaking disparagingly against prayer or God. I agree that if praying is all we do when taking action in a specific situation is called for, it is unhelpful. Actually, failure to act when we are in a position to do so is more than that; it is also unbiblical. In the Christian worldview, prayer and action are not mutually exclusive. We are called to do both. In the New Testament book of James, the writer asks, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:14-17). We are expected to act when we can. The same writer adds, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17). But concentrating on prayer alone is not what those who are actually praying for the victims are advocating. In most of these cases, there is nothing most people can do for reasons such as distance and giving space to law enforcement and other government officials to do their work. In such cases, the only option open to many of those who care deeply about the victims of evil and suffering is to pray for them. Prayer and action are not mutually exclusive from a Christian perspective.
Secondly, Christianity does not brush aside human capacity for evil. From its very opening pages, the Bible is emphatic that there is something drastically wrong at the core of the human heart, and it is proven right with astounding regularity. But the Bible is just as emphatic in its uniform resistance to evil. When Abraham encountered the three angelic beings who were on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he cried out to God, “Won’t the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Moses pleaded with God to have his name blotted out of God’s book in an attempt to save his people from destruction (Exodus 32:32), and Habakkuk wondered why God was silent when the wicked swallowed up people who were more righteous than they were (Habakkuk 1:13).
But biblical resistance to evil culminates at the cross of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God has put in place a process of overcoming evil with good. We see wonderful glimpses of that process at work whenever hearts are changed, but the process will one day be brought to an end. Good will ultimately triumph. So when we pray, we are not blind to the fact that there are things that have not yet been fixed. We even know that some of the damage we cause to each other will never be fixed this side of the grave, but we still pray in order to reorient ourselves towards God’s purposes for us, which will eventually triumph. In the meantime, we mourn, but not like those without hope. We know that when we fight evil, we stand with our feet firmly planted in the biblical story, and prayer gives us the strength to do so. How can we help but pray to the God who is at work in us, with us, and through us?
But why, it is often asked, doesn’t God prevent the tragedy in the first place? That is a question whose weight is felt by even the most devout of saints, and the fact that it is not always asked in search of an answer complicates the matter. Sometimes it is raised as an expression of deep anguish and pain. Logical answers, even if they were available, would not necessarily be helpful in such instances. Moreover, it is presumptuous to suppose that one could have definitive answers to questions about why or how God does certain things. But given what we know about God, we know that we can trust His character, even when we don’t have full answers to our questions.
But what we do know is that God has made us free beings, with real capacity for action, either for good or for evil. Though invaluable in conferring dignity and personhood to humanity, freedom is a powerful and frightening gift. I shudder to think of the consequences that often result from the fact that human beings have seemingly absolute authority over utterly helpless babies and other innocent lives. Thankfully, there is a Perfect Judge on the other end of our choices, and we will all be held accountable for how we use our freedom. Given the presuppositions of theism, justice will eventually prevail. It has been said that though the wheels of justice grind slowly, they grind exceedingly small. There are no renegade heroes outside of God’s jurisdiction.
Thirdly, in the light of tragedy, the believer who is in tune with his or her faith has no choice but to pray for those affected. We need to consider the fact that compassion and empathy for those who suffer are normal human responses. To be unable to sympathize with others is such a vile and base a condition that it does not even deserve to be called beastly, for some beasts are certainly affected by misfortunes that befall their kind. Great trials have a way of calling out the best in us and uniting us with each other at the very core of our being, perhaps giving us a powerful clue that we all have a common source: we were created by a God who is just and loving, and He made us in His image.
It is during difficult moments, more so than at most other times, that our real needs tend to rise to the surface, and our needs for safety, assurance, identity and worth are all bound up with the questions we ask when tragedy strikes. We believe these questions are answered in Christ, and it should therefore not be a surprise at all even to the nonbeliever that the believer will turn to God in times of trouble. God is the greatest source of help and comfort we know. As the prophet Samuel wrote long ago, “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you” (1 Samuel 12:23).
My family and I lived in Southern California for ten years and we loved it. We still do. We were not far from San Bernardino, and we have friends who still live in that area. In a very real sense, this tragedy hit very close to home for us. We can’t help but call out to God on behalf of the victims. And whenever we do so, we join billions of people around this globe and throughout history who have cried out to God in times of trouble. We consider it an enormous privilege to be counted among their number, primarily because we believe that God hears us. Prayer works, even though it doesn’t always turn out as we expected.
Once one ceases to be a stranger to the throne of God, one begins to see the wisdom of pleading with God for His Kingdom to come; to let His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Thoughts and prayers are not mere aphorisms and platitudes; they are means by which we join God in His scheme of overcoming evil with good. How dark and devoid of a suitable resolution to the incredible injustices that plague our planet is a world without God! Thankfully, that is not the world we inhabit, for the God we worship has Himself borne our tribulations in His own body, and He will one day wipe away our tears. No, our prayers are never in vain.