‘Thoughts and prayers’ do mat­ter

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY R. AL­BERT MOHLER JR. The writer is pres­i­dent of the South­ern Bap­tist The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in Louisville, Ky.

Lex orandi, lex cre­dendi — the law of prayer is the law of be­lief. Chris­tians have long known that we be­lieve as we pray, and we pray as we be­lieve. In the wake of tragedy, we are ac­cus­tomed to hear­ing calls for “thoughts and prayers.” We have heard them from prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, both Democrats and Repub­li­cans. But more re­cently, such calls have drawn harsh crit­i­cism from the left.

In re­sponse to the mass shoot­ing in Suther­land Springs, Tex., Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) re­sponded: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough, GOP.” New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo (D) bluntly told Repub­li­can lead­ers that their prayers weren’t needed: “We have pas­tors, priests and rab­bis to of­fer thoughts and prayers.” Per­haps the most strik­ing tweet came from Rep. Pramila Jaya­pal (D-Wash.), who wrote, “They were pray­ing when it hap­pened. They don’t need our prayers. They need us to ad­dress gun vi­o­lence and pass sen­si­ble leg­is­la­tion.”

What does it mean when a po­lit­i­cal leader says that the na­tion’s “thoughts and prayers” are with those who are in sor­row and grief? It could mean noth­ing. Or even worse than noth­ing, the words could be eva­sive and mis­lead­ing, cov­er­ing po­lit­i­cal ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity or con­vey­ing no more than empty sen­ti­ment. “Thoughts and prayers” could be a quick way of mov­ing on with­out mean­ing to do anything.

Or it could be an ex­pres­sion of what is called “civil reli­gion,” the com­mon spir­i­tual lan­guage of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. Robert Bel­lah, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, fa­mously ar­gued that “ev­ery na­tion and ev­ery peo­ple come to some form of re­li­gious self-un­der­stand­ing whether the crit­ics like it or not.” Some crit­ics clearly do not like it. Nev­er­the­less, ex­pres­sions of civil reli­gion are nec­es­sary for a pres­i­dent of the United States — any pres­i­dent — who must lead the na­tion as mourner in chief.

To the deeply com­mit­ted Chris­tian, civil reli­gion is far too lit­tle in terms of the­o­log­i­cal con­tent. To the athe­ist or ag­nos­tic, civil reli­gion is far too the­o­log­i­cal. Thoughts might be okay. Prayers are a step too far.

To mil­lions of Chris­tians in the na­tion, say­ing that our “thoughts and prayers” are with the needy, the hurt­ing and the sor­row­ful comes as nat­u­rally as our own re­quests for prayer. Pray­ing is not a way of avoid­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, but of af­firm­ing it. Prayer is not es­capism. It is obe­di­ence to Christ and fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of the apos­tles.

Un­der­stand­ably, this is per­plex­ing to nonChris­tians and per­haps even in­fu­ri­at­ing to the sec­u­lar-minded. But to Chris­tians who pray in light of God’s love, power and mercy, prayer comes as nat­u­rally as a child with a need goes to a loving par­ent.

Chris­tians are taught to pray for our own needs, and for the needs of oth­ers. Prayer re­minds us of our fun­da­men­tal lack of self-suf­fi­ciency, even as it re­minds us of our re­spon­si­bil­ity to oth­ers. We pray for those we know, but we also pray, quite nat­u­rally and ea­gerly, for those we may never know — such as the peo­ple of Suther­land Springs, Las Ve­gas or Or­lando. We pray in the face of moral evil such as mass mur­der, and we pray in the face of nat­u­ral evil like a dev­as­tat­ing tsunami.

When we say our “thoughts and prayers” are with them, we are not wash­ing our hands of duty; we are ex­press­ing our heart­felt ur­gency to pray. We are af­firm­ing the power of God to save, to heal and to com­fort. We are pray­ing for hu­man agents, doc­tors and first re­spon­ders, friends and neigh­bors, to do what we can­not, prompted by the lead­ing of God.

Dis­miss­ing the lan­guage of “thoughts and prayers” may serve po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency or of­fer a bit of moral cathar­sis (or even virtue sig­nal­ing), but it does not help us move to­ward heal­ing and unity. We des­per­ately need a com­mon moral vo­cab­u­lary, and “thoughts and prayers” rightly re­minds us of the com­mon moral vo­cab­u­lary that was once quite un­con­tro­ver­sial in Amer­ica. Just look at the lan­guage of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, Abra­ham Lin­coln, Franklin Roo­sevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Ron­ald Rea­gan or Barack Obama. Do we not want our lead­ers to call us to thoughts and prayers for those in grief ?

Je­sus taught his dis­ci­ples to pray, and he told them to pray to the Father, “Your king­dom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” [Matthew 6:10]. That is the most revo­lu­tion­ary prayer any hu­man can pray, and in that light, my thoughts and prayers are with the peo­ple of Suther­land Springs, and ev­ery­where else on Earth.

SCOTT OL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

A prayer service on Tues­day in La Ver­nia, Tex., for the 26 vic­tims killed in Suther­land Springs, Tex.

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