With Hurricane Sandy bearing down, one phrase (or a variation) was offered over and over to those in its path: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Newscasters, politicians, government officials and countless souls on Twitter and Facebook uttered such thoughts. We come across such phrases all the time during tragedies.
Call me a cynic, but this drives me a little crazy.
That’s because I doubt that everyone (or even many) saying “You are in my thoughts and prayers” is really getting down on his knees and imploring God to intervene in the matter at hand.
Such a phrase has become more like “God bless you” after a sneeze. But at least there there’s some 2,000 years of tradition involved. Evidently, its earliest known use was in the first century. Different legends hold that it was started for various reasons, such as: the soul was thought to be leaving the body; evil spirits were thought to be leaving the body; the heart was thought to be stopping and “God bless you” would help to revive it. Guess what? No one knows for sure why it originated. What we do know is that it’s obligatory today and to not recognize someone’s sneeze with a “bless you” is considered rude.
Prayer is a little different. Or, I think it should be. I believe that prayer is powerful. Apparently, a lot of people do and that’s why folks intuitively want to go beyond “my thoughts are with you.” Just offering that to an afflicted person would seem a little silly. Why would you care if I’m thinking about you if I’m not doing something about it?
That’s why casually saying “My thoughts and prayers are with you” seems a little insidious to me. There’s a sense in which folks who offer what is for many just a platitude are invoking God’s name and power, recognizing that it’s uniquely meaningful. But they are essentially taking that name in vain when they don’t truly and humbly go before God on the other’s behalf.
There’s only one thing that’s worse in this regard, and that’s when we Christians look someone squarely in the eye and say, “I am going to be praying for you in this” — but then don’t.
Now that I am guilty of. Most of the time it’s because I really meant to — and then simply forgot, got distracted or whatever. Or offered up a quick “Please, God, bless so-and-so” because I wanted to check my to-do box but then didn’t take the time to really intercede for that person or situation.
But all the casual “thoughts and prayers” banter in response to Sandy and other tragedies has got me focused on exactly that. When I say I am going to pray for someone, I need to believe that really means something, and obligates me to humbly go before God for that person or situation. And if I really believe that God is all-powerful and loving, why would I tarry even one moment anyway?
That’s my challenge to myself.
To those souls casually offering that their “thoughts and prayers” are with someone, I’d invite them to ask themselves: “Am I willing to implore God to intervene here?” If not, why offer the phrase? What is it that you think about God — what is it that you intuitively grasp about his power — that makes you want to utter those words in the first place?
The answers might be interesting.
The bottom line is that, partly in response to Sandy, it’s my genuine prayer that anyone talking about prayer would take the power of prayer a lot more seriously.
And, yes, that starts with me.
Betsy Hart’s latest book is “From The Hart: A Collection of Favorite Columns on Love, Loss, Marriage (and Other Extreme Sports).” Reach her through email@example.com.