In the wake of any tragedy or misfortune, Americans tend to offer vague sentiments of empathy. “My thoughts and prayers are with you,” we say. I don’t believe this is an empty platitude, but a genuine expression of concern and positive wishes. But I still don’t think we should say this. Here’s why.
1. Thoughts and prayers should not be categorized together
“Thoughts” may offer a secularized alternative to “prayers,” more palatable to the atheists in our midst. But thoughts are not prayers.
To understand this, look to the Bible. Prayer is calling upon the name of the Lord (Jeremiah 29:12) who hears the cry of His loved ones. It is not “babbling” many words (Matthew 6:7) but the rising of the heart before God like incense (Psalm 141:2). It renews our mind and fixes our sight on what is above (Romans 12:2). Importantly, Jesus says that only prayer and fasting can cast out evil (Mark 9). We do not know how to do this! But the Spirit intercedes for us to help us in our weakness (Romans 8:26). In this way, prayer opens your heart to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who alone can overturn the evil of the world. This is especially important in the wake of tragedy, when our response must be guided by understanding, love, courage, and wisdom – the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Don’t get me wrong. Thinking about someone who is suffering can be beautiful. It helps you cultivate compassion and find the strength to take action. But bringing someone to your own mind is nothing compared to praying for her. The secular counterpart of a prayer is not a thought, it’s an action. In fact, it’s perhaps the most powerful action you can take.
In the Orthodox Church, this is understood through the concept of theosis, or participation in the divine nature of God. How does this divinization happen? Christ calls us to mind, making us present to the Father and inviting us to share in His Life. Because of our unity with each other in Christ, when you pray for another, she becomes present to you and to Christ in a new way.
Okay, so offering prayers is clearly different from offering thoughts. But why not both? But what’s wrong with offering thoughts?
2. It favors inaction
Offering your “thoughts and prayers” for someone is self-serving. It favors inaction, because it gets you off the hook.
Often, in the wake of tragedy, we come to recognize that something must change. For instance, school shootings can help us understand the necessity of stringent gun control. In these moments, our conscience may tell us that we are complicit in the problem. This results in some cognitive dissonance, because you recognize your participation in injustice, and yet you are doing nothing.
So you say “my thoughts are with you” in order to check this cognitive box. It makes you feel better, because you can rest in the knowledge that you have responded to the promptings of your conscience. And you remain complicit in injustice.
Rather than checking that cognitive box, I invite you to sit with the discomfort. Better yet, pray with it. Don’t let it shut you down, but allow it to open you up. Let it show you concrete ways in which you can change and take action, so you can respond to the promptings of your conscience.
In the words of Saint John Paul II:
Prayer gives us strength for great ideals, for keeping up our faith, charity, purity, generosity, prayer gives us strength to rise up from indifference and guilt, if we have had the misfortune to give in to temptation and weakness. Prayer gives us light by which to see and to judge from God’s perspective and from eternity. That is why you must not give up on praying!
And if you still desire to offer some message of empathy, how about saying, “my prayers and actions are with you” instead of “thoughts and prayers”?
Further reading recommendations
Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Deep Conversion Deep Prayer offers an overview of the spiritual life and practical advice for developing a deep prayer life.
St. Francis de Sales writes about what it means to be a Christian in a secular world, and a testimony of God’s grace and love, in his Introduction to the Devout Life.