What I was reading shocked me. It was less than a couple of hours since dozens of our brothers and sisters in Sutherland Springs, Tex., were killed or maimed as they gathered together to worship God.  And already critics were storming Twitter to take potshots at well-meaning people offering their “thoughts and prayers” for the community and for those affected by the shooting.

They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.

The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of …

These tweets were just the ones from famous actors. Others were much worse. And the assaults didn’t stop with Twitter. Such high-profile people as Don Lemon on CNN used their platforms to criticize “thoughts and prayers” for those affected by the tragedies, saying instead that we should be doing something to stop such massacres.

The “prayer shaming”—as it’s begun to be called—isn’t new, it’s just becoming more vocal and more emboldened. The New York Daily News may have launched the opening salvo following the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack with the headline “God Isn’t Fixing This.” After the Las Vegas massacre, late night host Bill Maher mercilessly mocked “thoughts and prayers” in his monologue.

I’m not bringing this out to demonize those who would appear critical of Christianity. I’m doing it as an encouragement for those of us who are believers to think rightly about what’s going on in our world today. And to encourage us to do a little soul searching of our own about “thoughts and prayers.”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”

It was clear after reading scores of these callous tweets that most of the people didn’t even understand the purpose of prayer. To them it made no sense. Prayer can’t bring back the dead or un-shoot the wounded. Most considered thoughts and prayers to be an excuse for not doing anything about the tragedy or what we might have done to prevent it. There were other motivations for the critical comments, but those are the two I want to address.

The Apostle Paul tells us that the unsaved or “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We can’t expect most people to understand the true purpose of prayer.

As followers of Christ, we think with compassion about those who are affected by such a terrible tragedy—the parents, siblings, friends and neighbors.  They desperately need our prayers as they cope with their grief. Offering “thoughts and prayers” is merely a way of saying that these people need God’s presence and compassion.

As those indwelt by the Spirit of God, we understand what the critics cannot: that God’s Spirit helps us in our weakness when we don’t know how to pray; He speaks on our behalf when our groanings are too deep for words; He searches our hearts and knows how to intercede according to God’s will (Romans 8:26-27).

Prayer is the petition of the powerless. When we find it hard just coming to grips with our thoughts, God hears our prayers. That’s why we often offer our “thoughts and prayers” when friends or family members come to us with their heavy burdens. For the Christian, thinking deeply and compassionately about the suffering of others is what motivates us to pray. All too often though, we don’t pray as we promised, and we hardly give their afflictions a second thought. For that, we deserve rebuke.

I’m guilty of this for sure. So much so that a while back, I got a little pocket notepad to carry with me to write down people’s prayer requests. I wrote “I’ll Pray” on the cover to remind me of my commitment and jotted requests as soon as people asked me to pray.

I used it for a while, then misplaced it. Only because I’m writing this article did I hunt it down and dust it off to put back into active use. Something tells me that I’m not alone in this area when it comes to putting action to my intentions.

“Be warmed and be filled”

James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us that believing and not acting is the very contradiction of the Christian life (James 2:14-18).  When we see a fellow believer who’s cold and hungry, and our only action is to tell them “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled” what good is that to them?

Our faith should prompt us to act, and prayer is part of that action. The tendency (of the secular and the Christian) is to think of prayer rather as inactivity instead of action, but nothing can be farther from the truth. Prayer is hard work. It goes against our nature. Prayer requires us to engage our mind and heart, to put aside our own activities to intercede to God on behalf of others.

It’s easier to share prayer concerns with each other for 25 minutes than to spend five minutes submitting those requests before God. But to be honest, that’s what most “prayer meetings” look like.

The power of prayer

Maybe the unbelieving world is onto something when they’re critical of our “thoughts and prayers.” Sometimes we use the phrase as little more than a platitude. Might it be that the reason we Christians are losing our influence in the culture is because we’re not really praying, because we’re not truly crying out for the power of God in our times of weakness? Could it be that God allows calamities in our lives to pull us out of the mire of complacency and depend on His mighty power?

The Apostle Paul reminds us that it’s in our times of greatest weakness that we experience God’s strength in our lives. He begged God three times to remove a difficulty from his life. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

When we pray, we’re asking God to act strongly when we’re too weak to do so. Or too far away. Or don’t have sufficient resources or wisdom to help.

But the same Holy Spirit who intercedes for us before the Father is the same one who gives us the mind of Christ on how to act in a situation and gives us the power and will to do it. The more we truly pray, the more we involve ourselves in the powerful works of God and remove ourselves from the powerless impotency of “thoughts and prayers.”

So the next time you tell someone you’ll pray, do it. Maybe even right there on the spot rather than later when you’re sure to forget. Then go back later and ask them what God has done with your petition, or how you might update your prayers for them.

And the next time, after a tragedy, you see someone in the public square “prayer shaming,” ask God what you can do in that particular situation, even if it’s “only” to pray. And while you’re at it, pray for the “prayer shamers,” too, that God will show Himself powerful and real in their lives.

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