(Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16)
Thoughts and prayers.
Some people find them valuable, while others would actually pay to avoid them.
A recent study found that Christians generally value the offer of thoughts and prayers, even from a stranger. Two sociologists studied a group of North Carolina residents in the fall of 2018 after Hurricane Florence struck. They talked with more than 400 residents, asking them to describe the hardships they had suffered. Then they made an offer of a thought or a prayer, and they tied the offer to money.
What did they discover? Christians valued prayer from a stranger, putting its worth at more than $4. The nonreligious participants, however, said that they would pay more than $3.50 to avoid a Christian stranger’s prayer.
This finding “raises an interesting point,” said a Denver psychologist. “Some people, maybe, just don’t want your thoughts and prayers.” Perhaps they are atheists or agnostics, who do not believe in the power of prayer. Or maybe they feel that the offer of a prayer is a platitude, one that takes the place of meaningful action. As Kirsten Powers wrote in The Washington Post in reference to mass shootings:
Politicians have managed to make a once benign, if not comforting, phrase (“sending thoughts and prayers”) sound almost profane.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with praying for those who are suffering. In fact, if you are a religious believer, it’s an imperative. I’m not in the camp that dismisses prayer as superstitious mumbo-jumbo embraced only by the unenlightened. I’m a person who prays and who has been prayed for and knows its power.
But it’s not enough. Nor is it what we hire politicians to do. We elect them to fix problems, enact policies and keep us safe.
Even within the Christian community, many faithful people desire a strong link between words and actions. In his New Testament letter, James writes, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16). Faith without works, according to James, is dead.
In a similar manner, many Christians today will argue that prayer without action is dead. Consider the mothers being honored today on Mother’s Day. Are they going to be happy with thoughts and prayers? Probably not. They want a visit – when possible – or a call and maybe a card or gift. And many men will feel the same on Father’s Day.
Loving action is what is needed, with good reason.
Of course, not every human need can be met with gifts of clothing, food or other contributions. At times, nothing really can be offered except thoughts and prayers. Think of a relative dying of a terminal illness. Or a friend going through a divorce. Or a family member who is feeling deeply discouraged. Or anyone in a hospital or long-term care facility.
Yes, we can visit them – where possible, listen to them, love them and support them. But there is not much we can do to remove, mitigate or solve their problems. Thoughts and prayers are what we have to offer.
All of which raises the question, “What is the real value of prayer?” Most of us would argue that it is worth more than $4. But what specifically are our prayer values? What is the true value of prayer?
For starters, prayer changes us. More than changing the outcome of the situation in front of us — whether it is a natural disaster, a world-wide pandemic, or a terminal illness — prayer changes our relationship with God. Psalm 31 is a prayer for deliverance, and it includes the appeal to God: “Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me” (v. 2).
This prayer is all about the deepening of a relationship. It asks for God to hear us and rescue us, and it requests that God be a rock of refuge, a place of safety and stability, a mighty fortress, a location of salvation. What it does not request is a change to the situation being faced.
A few years ago, a group called American Atheists put up a billboard outside the Super Bowl, which said, “A ‘Hail Mary’ only works in football.” Then the group issued a press release that said, “It’s time to stop believing that prayer works.”
In the first part of their billboard the atheists had a point. Fans should not pray for their team to win. Players should not ask God to help them catch a pass or get the ball into the end zone. Prayer does not change the outcome of football games.
But the American Atheists were wrong to say that prayer does not work. Prayer changes the people who pray, making them more peaceful, accepting and connected to Almighty God. “Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me,” says Psalm 31 in its appeal to God. (v. 3). Prayer doesn’t change the path of hurricanes or the outcome of sporting events, but it does change us. It draws us into a deeper relationship with the God who saves us, even as it asks for God’s leadership and guidance.
One of the most well-known modern prayers is the Serenity Prayer, said first by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr during World War II. It is now central to the recovery from addiction being achieved in thousands of 12-step groups: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Notice that God is not being asked in this prayer to miraculously eliminate a desire for alcohol or narcotics. Instead, God is being asked to give serenity, courage and wisdom to people so that they can become well. As is said in a book called How Al-Anon Works, “We turn to the God of our understanding for the attributes necessary to live life more fully.”
In other words, praying people turn to God and ask for help to live better lives. By praying to God in this way, millions of people have become sober through 12-step groups across our country and around the world. In each of these groups, the Serenity Prayer is said to change the hearts and minds of people, not the heart and mind of God.
Another value of prayer is that it gives us skills to face the challenges of life. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a home-schooling crisis as well as a new appreciation for public school teachers. One mother sent the following Tweet on March 16 (the first day most schools were closed): “Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” Others put together curriculums that included: AP Laundry, Advanced Tire Changing, and a Mind Your Own Business intensive. And several parents chucked the whole idea – after they finished rolling around on the floor laughing. Sadly, prayer does not mean that parents will instantly be able to parse a sentence or understand why finding the answer to the equation 2 + 4 requires 10 minutes and half a ream of graph paper.
But parents who pray for serenity, courage and wisdom will find their prayers answered, and they will be given the attributes they need to be the best parents they can possibly be. “You’ve been thrown into a situation that is unfamiliar and somewhat scary,” said educator Amber Mathison, “Your ‘school day’ will not be perfect, and that’s OK. Just try to remember that you and your children are both adjusting to something new and there will be some bumps along the way.” Or as one parent put it, “If you keep them alive, that’s sufficient.” Seriously, the point is: Hang in there, pick your battles, stay in the fight and let love reign. Which is, of course true for each of us. Whether you are facing a tough situation at home, in school from home or at the home office, mental and emotional health is always going to be an asset. Hang in there. Pray for serenity, courage and wisdom.
Eileen Flanagan has written a book on the Serenity Prayer called The Wisdom to Know the Difference. In it, she cites a study which found that wise people “are able to step outside themselves and assess a troubling situation with calm reflection. They recast a crisis as a problem to be addressed, a puzzle to be solved. They take action in situations they can control and accept the inability to do so when matters are outside their control.”
These are the kinds of challenges we face when we encounter health concerns, relationship troubles and crises of various kinds. “My times are in your hands,” says the writer of Psalm 31. “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love” (vv. 15-16). We are going to experience the greatest serenity when we know that everything we face is in God’s hands. On top of this, we can handle problems most effectively when we believe that God is with us, working to save us, in every time and place and situation.
Another value of prayer is that it aligns us with the will of God for healing and wholeness in human life. God wants us all to have serenity, courage and wisdom — regardless of the particular challenges we face. And when life is overwhelming, we can pray for God to rescue us and save us (v. 2). God wants to save us from the worst that life can throw at us, even death itself. Serenity comes from the knowledge that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Neither death nor life nor anything else in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
The value of prayer goes far beyond the $4 that a Christian in North Carolina will pay to have a stranger offer a prayer. Prayer changes us and draws us closer to God. Prayer gives us skills to face the challenges of life. And prayer aligns us with the will of God for healing and wholeness.
So let’s offer each other our thoughts and prayers. They are worth far more than a scholarly study can possibly reveal.