by J. Murdock
Today’s world seems fraught with weekly tragedies and stories of utter heartbreak. Just this year, we have been subjected to news stories which cover mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Klan rallies and Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, and the natural disasters which devastated Houston, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Bangladesh, the Caribbean islands, and Iraq. The world is recovering from a year of ruination. Last month, Time magazine ran a column which said that “the tragedies of 2017 will test the bonds that connect us, now and for years to come.” In her article, author Susanna Schrobsdorff says that “our capacity for empathy has been worn thin and that our attention spans are now so tweet-size that we won’t be able to focus long enough on any one of these tragedies to provide long-term help.” With 2017 coming to a rapid close and 2018 showing no signs of trajectory shift away from tragedies, if Shrobsdorff is correct, we’re in trouble as a society.In these troubled times that seem insurmountable by human effort, it seems plausible to think that we should turn to the supernatural for aid. I cannot stop a hurricane or place a bullet back in the chamber after it has been fired; and neither can you. I cannot be in Iraq to help with the recovery efforts after an earthquake, and neither can many of you. But I don’t want to stop at thinking I can do nothing, so I turn to a God who can do all things. In these dire times, I sometimes can only muster the strength to lend two things: thoughts and prayers. But in today’s culture, it has become an insult to offer support for people by simply posting that your “thoughts and prayers” are with them. What good are thoughts or prayers when someone is dying? What good is a god when murders happen at country music concerts? What can a thought do for refugees deserted at sea? While these are worthy conversations to be had, something strange has happened to the focus of the issues at hand when we get sidetracked by infighting over the validity of a hope and a prayer in times of crisis.
Social media can be a wasteland for such arguments, as quick tweets, sympathetic Facebook wall posts, Instagram filters that overlay supportive mantras in the aftermath of violence, and blog posts offer this messaging. It’s here that we find the epicenter for most of the comments biting back against the thoughts and prayers given to hurting people across the world. Most often the criticism revolves around the understanding that thoughts and prayers are meaningless without action. Too quickly we see people post simply their thoughts and prayers and then leave it at that, believing that this is the maximum amount of effort needed in times of hopelessness. If that much is the case then, a growing choruses of voices say, keep your thoughts and prayers to yourself if that’s all you can muster. It is this that I would like to explore further.
The Pew Research Center released a study on religion and spirituality in September of this year that has two points of data that may help shape the conversation. Since 2012, American adults who consider themselves religious and spiritual have declined from 59% to 48%, while adults who consider themselves spiritual but not religious are up from 19% to 27%. When combined, this equates to 75% of the nation’s adults that are spiritual people. With these statistics in mind, compare these figures to the reality that depression affects 14.8 million American adults. Anxiety affects another 40 million adults. In total, adults with any type of mental illness in 2016 totaled 45.1 million people. Additionally, as part of a Gallup report on global emotions illustrates, “only 30% of individual behavior is rational – the other 70% is emotional.”
Christopher Bader, contributing author of the 2017 Chapman University Survey of American Fears submits that “the longer we delve into fears, the more I see fears as responses to uncertainty. When people are unsure – or made to feel unsure – and not in control of their finances, families, possessions, community, or future, their natural inclination is to grasp for certainty.”
The figures and quotations above suggest that we are emotionally facing the world moment by moment full of fear and confusion which is spurred on by anxiety, fueled by uncertainty, and uninhibited by rationality—all despite our convictions of spiritual foundations. In times when people target concert venues, churches, schools, and workplaces for acts of mass violence, and natural disasters level communities without prejudice, we seek solid solutions to quell our fears. Unfortunately, thoughts and prayers are not certain enough to provide such security, and so they are quickly discarded.
On the one hand, this cynicism seems justifiable in light of the statistics above. On the other, there is a Christian standard which was handed down from Christ over and over in the Scriptures. In Mark 5:36, Jesus remarks to a religious man in the wake of his daughter’s death, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus would be recorded in the New Testament using this construct to calm the trepidations of His children another one-hundred times, and still His people tremble today as if to reject the thoughts and prayers of Christ Himself two thousand years later. Because Jesus’ gentle caress is not felt in the present, we seek something more tangible to soothe our wounds. For those who have never felt the personal touch of Christ cannot fathom the words spoken to them or allow them to be readily applied. Over and over, those who encountered Jesus without intimately knowing Him and being known by Him discounted His teachings, believing He was out of touch with the world by speaking such blasphemy. Today, Christians are disregarded due to social constructs which view religiosity as thinly veiled hypocrisy, and in turn ignore the naive offerings of thoughts and prayers.
While this may be aggravating to those who still have faith in the validity of prayer in the face of adversity, there is hope to be gained in this conversation that might otherwise be hidden by the saturation of negativity surrounding the thoughts and prayers argument. But, with great power comes even greater responsibility. Knowing the rationale for why people respond negatively gives way to breaking through that misunderstanding and allowing clear lines of communication to emerge. In light of the information above, Christians must understand that the messaging of lending thoughts and prayers to victims of tragedy comes without the background of knowing Christ fully. For believers in history through to the present day, Jesus’ words only strike deep at the heart of the issue when Jesus is present in their pain. For those who only know of the spiritual side of faith do not have a connection to a gentle Jesus and cannot hang their fears on the cross where they can be exchanged for belief in a soothing Spirit and a warm embrace from the Lord. Without this vantage point, thoughts and prayers truly are not believed and therefore seem uncertain and appear to fall on deaf ears without effect. This adjusted reality, while disheartening, is not reason enough to cause an about-face and cease providing thoughts and prayers to hurting people. Instead, this misunderstanding is paving the way for a greater conversation about the gospel and its Messenger of faith, hope, and love.
Later in the same article, author Susanna Schrobsdorff wonders aloud whether or not it is “possible to expand our hearts and minds to embrace this level of hurt and destruction… If I were religious, I’d know where to look to find guidance on how not to lose touch with the feeling of connection I had with all those families whose suffering we’ve seen so intimately.” In a seeming lament of her own shortcomings as a mere mortal amidst a battle of biblical proportions, Susanna notes that her lack of religiosity gives her a distinct disadvantage in this world fraught with chaos. But even with her sense of being a spiritual person, she concedes that if she were connected to religion, there she might find the answer of how to reengage empathetically with a broken system.
There is still room for Jesus in this world. There is still a need for good news. It just can’t be packaged so succinctly in the offering of “thoughts and prayers.”
Therein lies the call to Christians for action.
We have been called to live in a time when tragedy is a weekly headline. As it stands now, the people who perpetuate fear and those that they target are plagued by anxiety more than ever before. Decisions are a matter of emotional distress. Three quarters of the nation believes that there is a Spirit which binds us all, but that invisible bond is broken easily as it has no Body to bear the weight of our troubles. What the world needs now is someone who can guide us all to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch faith that is credible, hope that is tangible, and love that is powerful.
We know that Faith.
We have that Hope.
We feel that Love.
Our messaging need not change, but our delivery system must. This will mean our tweets will have to carry beyond 140 characters as needed. Our Facebook posts may creep outside of the typical potent quotables that fit nicely as decorative text inset over a picturesque sunset. Our Instagram photos have to provide more than the typical Houston Strong filter and coordinated hashtag. What we are called to do is give hope to our thoughts and love to our prayers. We have been commissioned to share the gospel by teaching people what Jesus has given to us. That includes teaching them about Jesus Himself. There is a large population of people primed for the journey as they believe that there is something bigger than us all; they just aren’t certain what that something is. Jesus told His disciples to keep their eyes on Him and they would understand in time. I believe the world needs something comforting to look at in the surging seas of heartache.
So show them Jesus.
The path that leads to refuge is long and riddled with dangers, but the journey to wholeness is a worthy one. Show them the Way, speak Truth, and cast Light into the darkness in all of the ways that Jesus shows you how. Take courage and go forth boldly into the world proclaiming His message of peace. We need you now more than ever.
My thoughts and prayers are with you.
J. Murdock currently lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan and is working on his M.Div in sponsorship with the Rocky Mountain Conference at the Andrews University Seminary. He is passionate about reaching people with compassion and understanding, developing effective curriculum about the gospel for young adults inside and out of the church, and teaching improvisational comedy. His wife, Rebecca Murdock, is currently working on her M.A. in systematic theology at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University.