The Difference Between Thoughts and Prayers
We’ve heard a lot about “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre. Many people offered “thoughts and prayers.” Some people were thankful for the “thoughts and prayers.” Others decried the uselessness of “thoughts and prayers.”
To most people today, thoughts and prayers accomplish the same purpose. To say you are praying for someone, or thinking of them, is a way of showing solidarity with them and concern. It is a nice gesture of support and care to say, “I am thinking of you in your hardship.” For those without a religious faith, to use the language of thinking of someone is more honest than saying you are praying for them. Some people believe that thinking positive thoughts for someone else has its own effect, like the effect of prayer. When there is no action that can be taken on someone else’s behalf, sending good thoughts is the best many can do. Some of my unbelieving friends ask for “good vibes” as they enter a job interview or make a big move.
Prayers are different than thoughts.
There is a very big difference, from the Christian perspective, between thoughts and prayers. Prayer to the Christian is not simply a way of saying that you are supporting someone, showing them solidarity, or concern. Neither is it belief in the power of positive thinking. Prayer is the act of interceding for a person or situation before God. The Bible says that because of Christ, we can go directly into the throne room of God and ask him for what we need. We believe that God will respond when we pray, and give us power and peace that are not achievable simply with our own thoughts. We might put it this way: Prayer activates God’s power. Thoughts activate our own power.
Prayer as preparation for action.
Several times in the Bible, prayer is preparation for decisive action. Nehemiah prayed before he set off to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. The disciples prayed for 10 days before Pentecost. We know from Paul’s letters that he prayed before embarking on evangelistic crusades. Jesus himself prayed before going out to teach the crowds. We should not devalue prayer as it relates to decisive action. Prayer is invaluable in seeking the hand of God, aligning yourself with him, and drawing upon his power as you seek to accomplish things in his name. Prayer should precede action and never be used as an excuse for complacency!
Prayer as the only option.
Sometimes in the Bible, prayer is the last resort of powerless people. The disciples prayed for Peter’s release from prison. Hezekiah prayed that Israel be spared from the insurmountable army of Senaccherib. In dire circumstances, prayer may be the only available recourse from catastrophic loss. God welcomes such prayers and is often pleased to show his gracious hand to those who seek him.
Prayer as conforming to God’s will.
Finally, many times we see prayer as a way of communing with God to conform and accept his will. The Lord’s prayer includes, “your kingdom come, your will be done.” Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but your will be done.” Paul prays for believers throughout the New Testament that their eyes be opened, that they would know God and the power of the resurrection inside them. Prayer can help us perceive the mind of God toward us.
Christians, stop demoting prayer to thoughts!
To my fellow followers of Jesus, let us commit ourselves to actual prayer. Too often we say, “I’ll be praying for you” and what we really mean is, “your situation is hard and I sympathize with your difficulty.” Instead, stop, and remember that God has granted us the right to come boldly into his presence, directly before the throne of grace, in our time of need. If you want to show sympathy to someone, you could instead say, “That sounds extremely difficult. I am very sorry for what you are going through.” Do not substitute sympathetic feelings for actual prayer, where we come humbly before God and ask him to intervene. If we promise prayer as a Christian way of showing sympathy, we are making far too little of prayer.
To my unbelieving friends, please understand.
In our perspective, prayer is not the least we can do. It is often the most we can do. When prayers are truly offered, it is because the Christian in great humility sees great problems and needs that he knows he cannot address in his own power. The prayers are offered as an act of both love and faith, believing God will work invisibly and supernaturally to heal and guide us forward.