When “thoughts & prayers” void real prayer

thoughts and prayers

It’s now a macabre routine: Many tweet their “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of a school shooting, this time with ten dead in Santa Fe, Texas. Others chime back: “Drop the talk of thoughts and prayers unless you’re willing to do something.”

Welcome to contemporary America, where even the language of prayer polarizes. What’s more, I now sympathize with the drop-your-prayer-talk camp even though I’m a veritable prayer warrior. I’m convinced that prayer, rightly understood, can be the agency through which God alters history.

It’s just that phrase, “thoughts and prayers” gushes with civil religion’s mawkish sentiment. It’s not accompanied with the biblical realities undergirding our communion with God: We’re God’s caretakers over the Earth (Genesis 1:26, 3;15), which means we’re his co-laborers (1 Corinthians 3:9). As Genesis famously says, we’re made in God’s “image” (Genesis 1:27), a verse over which gallons of ink has been spilled through the centuries. Much of the worthy dialogue skips past the word’s Hebrew meaning: It’s the same term translated as “idol.” An idol represented a temple’s god. Couple that with the literary structure of Genesis One, which implies that God was creating a temple when he made the Earth.

Tapping Into God

Behold our original purpose: Humanity is God’s designated temple representative. The entire world was meant to be an intersection between God’s space (Heaven) and ours. That means our very reason for being – our identity, our warp and woof – is planted in God. Prayer is the means by which we tap into the source of our existence. Rebellion against God is a revolt against our reason for being: the mirror’s image riots against the man or woman it reflects. No wonder it brings death (Genesis 2:7). Venturing into evil cancels our existence.

With that in mind, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, on Earth as it is heaven (Matthew 6:10). We’re praying that God will re-inhabit His temple and rejuvenate his image. Prayer reaches into God’s space and pulls its reality onto the Earth.  Jesus is invoking eschatological terminology: He’s alluding to the eschaton, a Greek word meaning “end times.” Let the future come now and invade the present. Prayer is an eschatological act of an eschatological people: We’re pulling the cosmos of the second coming into the present. The era in which swords are beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) begins with us, here and now.

Prayer is a rebellion against Adam and Eve’s revolt. As theologian Karl Barth said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Prayer is not a veil behind which we retreat from engagement. It brings us to our source and fuels us with the life of the Spirit. The image returns to the mirror and becomes alive again. We can now encounter evil on God’s terms and armed with God’s power.

Prayer, to put it bluntly, is an act of non-violent war. The New Testament’s authors didn’t flinch at such terminology, and the Apostle Paul delineated our weapons: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace (better yet; well-being), faith, salvation, God’s Word, and prayer in the Spirit (see Ephesians 6:10 and following). We bear the Spirit’s fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control: Galatians 5:22-23) and operate in his gifts as we co-labor with God.

The Theft

But then comes the great passive-aggressive hijacking. Prayer and action are ripped apart and the language of spirituality is wielded like a paralyzing taser. I’ve seen this in churches I’ve served.  Suddenly, Joe and Josephine Church-goer morph into devotional giants at the mere mention of outreach: We don’t pray enough; we need more of God’s presence; we need more intimacy with God; let’s barricade ourselves in our prayer closets and launch 24-hour prayer watches and soak in God and marinate in God and submerge ourselves in God and saturate in God. The taser is drawn faster than Clint Eastwood’s pistol at the mere whisper of evangelism. We need more intercession and still more intimacy and more soaking prayer and contemplative prayer and meditative prayer.

As a pastor, I actually grew to dread terms like “intimacy” even though I relish deep communion with God. I embrace contemplative prayer and healing prayer and intercessory prayer. But the terminology was used to slam shut the prayer closet’s door and lock us inside. I never figured out how to combat the hijacked lingo and rip the taser from the passive aggressor’s hands. I longed to cry: “Real prayer involves us in the world.  It is a push forward, not a retreat backward!”

The inevitable response: “You’re not bearing the fruit of patience. Obviously, you need more prayer.”

Empty Words

The phrase, “thoughts and prayers” emerges from that passive-aggressive world, but the taser has lost its juice. My “thoughts” help no one aside from myself, and the prayer’s deity launches no kingdom invasion. There’s no confession and no “uprising” against the world’s chaos: no recognition of who God is, who we are, and our position as God’s co-laborers. The image says to the mirror: “Have a nice day,” then walks away.

“Thoughts and prayers” fails to grasp Russell Moore’s insight: “The point of the Gospel is not that we would go to heaven when we die. Instead, it is that heaven will come down, transforming and renewing the earth and the entire universe.” Genuine Christian prayer embraces James 1:22: “Do not merely listen o the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

No doubt some invoke this terminology and sincerely pray for God’s invasion, but I’d council caution before posting it on Twitter and Facebook. It’s been abused, and our secular friends have grown weary of religious passive aggressiveness. They may not know it, but they long for true prayer’s revolution.

Pray for the revolution – and participate in it.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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