When a mass shooting occurs in the United States—and it happens all too often, doesn’t it?—lots of politicians will say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” or something like that.
This practice has become controversial in some quarters, which raises the question, “What’s wrong with thinking about and praying for victims, communities, and families in the wake of a massacre?”
And the answer is, “Nothing.” Anybody with half a heart is going to think about the people affected by such a tragedy. Anybody with a smidgen of faith is going to pray for them.
I’d go so far as to say that if you don’t give the victims any thought, you need to go on a quest for some compassion.
So can offering up thoughts and prayers be problematic?
For some guidance, let’s turn to the book of James in the New Testament. The author is famous for his insistence that “faith without works is dead.” What he means is that if you have faith it’ll change the way you live. Trusting in Jesus leads you to do something about it. As he develops this thought he says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).
It’s good to think kind thoughts and to say good words. But the thoughts and words mean little to nothing if you don’t do what you can do to help, James says.
Now, some folks who criticize or mock politicians for offering up thoughts and prayers after the latest rampage really don’t think that prayer does any good. You probably know better than that. I know better than that. The good Lord can and will offer strength and hope to people who are going through unimaginable pain and loss. So I say, “Pray on!”
But—and this is an important ‘but’—you should do what you can do.
This is where some of our political leaders deserve critique.
Let me address them by paraphrasing James: “If your brothers, sisters, and little children keep getting slaughtered, and you say, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you,’ but you do not use the power and authority you have to do something to try to help keep such tragedies from happening again, what is the good of that?”
You’ve probably heard the story that preachers have been telling for decades. A flood had struck a community. The water was beginning to fill the streets. A fellow was on his front porch when someone came by on an ATV and offered him a ride. “No,” he said, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” The waters continued to rise. The man went to the second floor of his house and stood at a window. Some folks came by in a boat and offered him a ride. “No,” he said, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” A few hours later the man was on his roof as the waters continued to rise. A helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a ladder down to him. “No,” he shouted, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” The water continued to rise. The man drowned.
When he got to heaven he said to the Lord, “Lord, I don’t understand. You promised to rescue me. Why didn’t you?”
And the Lord answered, “Give me a break. I sent an ATV, a boat, and a helicopter.”
Maybe when our leaders pray about these mass shootings, the Lord gives them some ideas. Maybe God expects them to be part of the answer to their prayers.