Some say “God is not a cosmic vending machine,” while others champion the power of prayer.
After every tragedy, like the one this weekend in Las Vegas, a familiar rhythm of grief emerges. Politicians, religious leaders, and other public figures emerge to offer “thoughts and prayers” to those afflicted.
After this most recent tragedy, for example, Pastor James Dobson of Focus on the Family said in a statement that “now is the time to be unified in prayer. ... [We are] asking for God’s peace and grace for all those who have lost loved ones.” Paula White likewise released a statement saying she was “praying for every victim, family member, friend and the community of Las Vegas grieving from this horrific act of evil. May you feel the love of God and all of us standing with you.”
The trope of “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy is so common that it has become a model for performative sympathy and inaction. It’s the title of a satirical video game in which players are challenged to use “thoughts and prayers” to stop school shootings (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work). It’s the title, too, of a particularly cynical BoJack Horseman episode about mass shootings, in which beleaguered film producers find themselves rolling their eyes while they trot out the phrase, again and again, in response to real events as they try to get back to the “actually pressing business of making sure the movie gets made.”
But for faith leaders from a variety of traditions, prayer — particularly prayer after a mass tragedy — is more than a byword for inaction. For some, it’s an opportunity to engage with a higher power, or to express sorrow, sympathy, or solidarity. For some others, it’s the first step toward taking meaningful real-world action. And for others still, it’s an excuse to do too little.
We talked to six faith leaders from different Christian denominations, and religious traditions more broadly, about the role of prayer after a tragedy and what it really means to offer “thoughts and prayers” to those in need. Their responses have been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Prayer can be a powerful grounding force
Pastor Kelly France, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis
Prayer isn’t just a matter of wishing that things would have turned out differently, although that is part of it. When people pray, we assume a posture of listening. Prayer opens us to hear what God is calling us to do in a situation; it is a way to find clarity in the chaos around us by turning to God, who is greater than our pain and anxiety. Prayer grounds us in God’s mission and reminds us that God is active in the world.
The promise that God is at work in spite of the evil of such events also empowers people of faith to act beyond what we so often see as the limit. Recognizing God’s role in creation puts the rest of life into perspective. If God’s will is that we are to be selfless, then what benefit is it to act selfishly? If God’s will is that we are to be compassionate and to see the inherit dignity in creation, then what benefit is it for me to act contrary to that? Prayer helps us to remember God’s will for creation. Prayer moves us beyond ourselves toward God’s promise.
Prayer reminds us to reflect on others
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, New York
Prayer frees us from our intellectualizing and rationalizing, breaks down the protective barrier around our hearts, and allows us to voice our pain and anguish. "Every night, I drench my bed; I melt my couch in tears" (Psalms 6:7). And prayer enables us to seek strength from a connection both to the divine (however we conceive of divinity) and to the community praying with us.
Ultimately, prayer also forces us back into the world. We cannot praise God for divine acts of justice and mercy without hearing the call to imitate God through our own actions. As the prophet Isaiah warns, "Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood" (Isaiah 1:15). Prayer is necessary but never sufficient.
Prayer without action is meaningless
Linda Sarsour, Palestinian-American Muslim activist, New York
Prayers are foundational to Islam but are never disconnected from practical action. One of the sayings of our beloved prophet is, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” Gun violence and domestic terrorism are evil, and we are required to act to alleviate suffering and injustice.
“I want people to stop going to church and start being the church”
Pastor Jim Kast-Keat, Riverside Church, New York
I often think the "thoughts and prayers" trope, especially in the immediate wake of a tragedy like this one, is utterly useless and only serves to alleviate the guilt that the "thinker" or "prayer" has for not being able to (or being willing to) do anything more.
Besides, what does it even mean that your "prayers are with the victims," as if they were flowers left at a roadside vigil? The "thoughts and prayers" approach feels lazy to me. People know they need to respond somehow but know that no words will ever do, so they "think" and "pray." I'd rather have people vote and act. Thoughts and prayers won't change the gun control laws in this country. Only actions and votes will. Besides, I tend to prefer prayers like Rabbi Heschel embodied when he said, "I prayed with my feet."
Too often we find ourselves calling ourselves into our holy huddles, filled with our thoughts and prayers, while the world goes to hell around us. As cheesy as it might sound, I want people to stop going to church and I want them to start being the church. I want them to stop praying with their thoughts and starting praying with their bodies and their votes and their voices.
Prayer can move God’s heart
Patrick Hill, counselor at Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colorado
We believe that prayer is an active conversation with the creator of the universe. God is moved by the prayers of his people and brings healing, peace, and comfort to those afflicted. We pray to the living God, so praying is direct communication with God himself. Not only do our prayers move his heart, but the direct communication with him strengthens our faith and provides comfort and peace — for the person praying and for those being prayed for. God’s desire for this world is peace. When we cry out to him, He pours out his perfect peace.
Prayer is a form of submission to God’s will
Pastor Dave Gass, Grace Family Fellowship, Pleasant Hill, Missouri
“Thoughts and prayers” often get put together, when in actuality they are two very contra-distinct terms.
Prayer is the idea of seeking help from outside of ourselves, while thoughts are internalized processing mechanisms. Christians believe that prayer is a form of action because we believe that God is real, God is powerful, and God hears and answers prayer. We like to think of prayer as a way to get God to do what we want, but God is not a cosmic vending machine. We do not use prayer as a form of celestial manipulation. Instead, prayer is a means through which we communicate our hearts to God, and we surrender to his perfect will. In other words, prayer is a means through which we remind ourselves, and God, that God is God and we are not.
Prayer is not only a means of asking God to act, it is also a means of asking God to give us opportunities to act. Prayer is the first step, but it is not the final step. We pray as we move into action. I confess on behalf of many (perhaps most) Christians that prayer is often an excuse for inaction. Through prayer we are reminded that God has communicated to us throughout millennia. Prayer allows us to communicate our thoughts and feelings to God, knowing that he cares for us and is involved in our daily lives.
Jesus told us to pray in his famous sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:25-34, instructing Christians that we need not be anxious or fearful, because we can know that God cares about our concerns both big and small. This gives us space to grieve, to process, and to move toward actions of healing and growth from the pain we are experiencing both within ourselves and in the lives of others. In prayer we know that God is real, God is good, God is working, and God is calling us forward. Far from being inaction, prayer is a call to action.
Prayer means reflecting on hard truths
Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings, Lutheran Campus Ministry at University of Washington, Seattle
Prayer for my community and myself is time to be in relationship with God in an intimate, focused way. Through prayer, we are rooted in God. Sometimes we end up reflecting on hard truths about ourselves or the world; sometimes we are filled with love, strength, and grace. Sometimes we go to prayer to let out all of the pain and give it to God. Prayer for others allows us to focus on the needs of others and their suffering (or joy) and petition God for God's presence to be known in their lives.
Prayer is being in relationship and communication with God. It breaks open our heart to the world and calls us to action. Simply stating that your thoughts and prayers are with someone is meaningless unless you are actively engaging in and with the pain and suffering in the world — and doing something about it.
Prayer and action feed off each other
Father A.K.M. Adam, University of Oxford, Oxford, England
I look at it this way: I'm not going to effect a change in anyone's condition by doing X, Y, or Z “take action” thing (from Oxford, as an academic theologian) right away. I can continue engaging in the political system, work with university life to underscore the devastating folly of uncontrolled gun ownership, and so on. But at this minute, in the face of such catastrophic evil, I can take an action that binds me closer in solidarity with many others around the globe, and that (in the faith by which I live) responds positively to a divine command and orients me toward a radically more benign state of affairs. So I pray.
I get the force of the “don't pray, do something” admonition — but it relies for its force on the premise that prayer is “doing nothing” (a premise I don't share), on the premise that I'm trading away a more effectual course of activity (when prayer and activism are not zero-sum alternatives), and on a general resentment of public figures who make much of theological platitudes without directing any of the executive or legislative authority they have toward ameliorating a situation. Is tweeting, “Don't pray,” an improvement over tweeting, “I'm praying”?
Acknowledging the suffering of others is important, even if the phrasing is trite
Imam Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Detroit
As there are those who may use the phrase “our thoughts and prayers are with victims and their families” as a cliché during tragic times, saying such is important nonetheless. Such statements reflect, at least in certain occasions, that there has been negative impact on fellow humans.
The lack of acknowledging others’ suffering outside of one’s self or family is a sign of spiritual death. Spiritually dead people cannot bring healing and growth in any society. Sincere prayers for the victims and their families, of course, [are] better and more needed that just clichés. The supplicants’ prayers seeking mercy for victims and victims’ families are believed to be a source of relief during hardships from the one who possesses all power, who is transcendent over creation yet is intimately close to humans’ affairs. Those who pray for victims and their families, in turn, receive spiritual benefit from the divine, who showers mercy upon those who seek and show mercy for others. Prophet Muhammad stated, “Whoever does not show mercy shall not receive mercy.”
God may move your heart through prayer to show you how to act
Father James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, New York
Prayer is communication with God. So how can one not cry out to God when one is in need? It's part of an open and honest communication, as in any relationship. But how God responds is up to God. God may respond, for instance, by encouraging you to reach out or help someone who is suffering. That is, God may move your heart to help the victims of a tragedy in some way. What God does is up to God. All I know is that I frequently ask God for help, and I'm grateful when people pray for me.