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, Texas, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, responded: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough, GOP.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, 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-Washington, 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 OK. 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 non-Christians 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, heal and 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,” according to 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.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.