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Thoughts & Prayers

James 2:15-16 (ESV) - "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?"

All over social media I have witnessed people lashing out against the common phrase "thoughts and prayers".  It bothered me to see people so angry and calling Christians hypocrites for this phrase...I never used it myself because it didn't fit my personality, but I viewed it as a way to say something to someone that is hurting.  A way to let them know that you are there, that you are with them, that you love them, and you are thinking of them.  I saw the phrase as a kindness...but our culture no longer sees it this way. What do they expect?  Certainly they don't want hurting people calling out on social media to be met with silence, wouldn't that be much worse?

AJ Willingham shared a great example of this cultural shift in an article she wrote for CNN in 2018 called "How 'thoughts and prayers' went from common condolence to cynical meme".  She shared a powerful image that went viral hours after a mass shooting.  Half of the image showed the words "thoughts and prayers" imprinted on the side of a garbage truck.  The other side showed an empty van and the words "Excellent news, the first truckload of your thoughts and prayers has just arrived."  In the article, she goes on to share everything from major headlines to video games designed to make fun of the phrase.  

Our world is hurting and in pain, and they are tired of seeing those claiming to follow Christ offering up condolences, but no action.  Imagine how different the gospel message would be if Jesus had responded this way.

Martha called out "Jesus!  Your best friend Lazarus is dead!"
Jesus replied "So sad, you and Mary have my thoughts and prayers."

Jesus asked a blind man "What do you want me to do for you?"
The blind man responded "I want to see again."

Jesus said "Ah, yes!  You have my thoughts and prayers!"

A woman had had been bleeding for 12 years.  She was broke and desperate because she had spent all of her money on doctors.  In a crowd of people she reached out to Jesus and grabbed his cloak.
Jesus paused and said "Who grabbed my cloak?"
The woman anxiously said "It was I." and she explained her condition.
Jesus replied "That is terrible, you have my thoughts and prayers."

It would be a very different gospel indeed if Jesus had acted this way, yet somehow we have justified our meek response to the suffering among us.  I suspect it is two things.  First, social media has made us much more aware of the suffering and we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of it.  Second, we want to let people know that we are with them, we love them, and we support them, but we don't know how.  

For the first problem, that of feeling overwhelmed, I offer these scripture for reflection:

Isaiah 41:12-13 (MSG) - "That's right.  Because I, your God, have a firm grip on you and I'm not letting go.  I'm telling you, 'Don't panic.  I'm right here to help you.'"

Galatians 6:9-10 (MSG) - "So let's not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good.  At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don't give up, or quit.  Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith."

And remember that Jesus rested and encouraged rest, even when there was still much to do! Mark 6:31a (MSG) "Come off by yourselves; let's take a break and get a little rest."
For the second I offer two lists from Russ Harris' book "The Reality Slap".  The first list describes things like "thoughts & prayers" that people do not find helpful.  The second list are alternatives that people in pain have reported finding helpful.

Do not say:

  • Telling them to "think positively"
  • Giving advice: "What you should do is this, "Have you thought about doing such and such?"
  • Discounting their feelings: "No use crying over spilled milk," "It's not that bad," "Cheer up!"
  • Trumping their pain: "Oh yes, I've been through this many times myself. Here's what worked for me."
  • Telling them to get over it: "Move on," "Let it go," "Isn't it time you got over this?"
  • Trivializing or diminishing their pain: "Put it into perspective — there are kids starving in Africa."

Try these instead:
  • Asking how they feel
  • Giving them a hug, embrace, placing an arm around them or holding their hand
  • Validating their pain: "This must be so hard for you" or "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through."
  • Sharing your own reactions: "I'm so sorry, "I'm so angry," "I feel so helpless; I wish there was something I could do," or even "I don't know what to say."
  • Creating space for their pain: "Do you want to talk about it?" It's OK to cry," or, "We don't have to talk; I'm happy to just sit here with you."
  • Offering support: "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Prayer: God, may you guide us to action.  Go with us and give us strength, so that we may not be overwhelmed by the evil in this world.  Give us the wisdom to know what to say to be a blessing and encouragement to those who suffer.  Prompt us to do, more often, because our words are not enough.  Amen.  


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