Joking aside, as a Christian feminist I have struggled with the backlash against this phrase. I appreciate the sentiment that those opposed to the phrase are trying to express. Namely- in the case of natural disasters, mass shootings, war, and other situations that demand governmental and humanitarian response- saying that "our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by (insert tragedy here)" is not enough. Natural disasters require aid. Mass shootings require a change in gun laws. War torn countries require our attention, action, and help.
However, as a Christian woman, I do believe in the power of prayer. So hearing things like "you can keep your thoughts and prayers" can be a response that I sympathize with but also isn't necessarily helpful in trying to build an effective dialogue that will allow both sides to come together on these issues that for whatever reason divide us. What can maybe be an appropriate response on both sides to situations that require faith but also action?
As a Catholic, I have always been taught that faith and works go together. And as a Scripture scholar, I go to the Bible for guidance. St. James' letter is the text most often quoted on this idea of faith and works being dependent on one another:
"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?
So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead."- James 2:14-17
St. James would seem to be supporting the "keep your thoughts and prayers" camp here in a way. What good are our thoughts and prayers if we are not backing them up with action?
But on the opposite side, we need not neglect the power of prayer if we are persons of faith. Jesus says in Matthew's Gospel while debating the devil in the desert:
"one does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."- Matt. 4:4
Jesus is referencing the Old Testament here as He combats the devil. He is referencing this verse from Deuteronomy:
"He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD." - Deut. 8:3
And later, the book of Deuteronomy goes on further to say:
"But when you have eaten and are satisfied, you must bless the LORD, your God, for the good land he has given you."- Deut. 8:10
In other words, when the work of the Lord is done, we should not forget Him and give thanks.
But not everyone in our society believes what we believe as Christians. So our thoughts and prayers may really not mean much to them. It doesn't mean that we cannot give them, but we do need to do more.
Christ says in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel that we should keep our prayers in secret and not go boasting about them (Matthew 6: 5-8). However, He also says that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them." (Matt. 18:20). So which is it?
Sin is always about our intention. That is to say, no one can know if our intentions were good or not, ultimately,except for God. We may really truly want to help people with our prayers, and we can certainly pray for them. But only God will see those intentions and prayers initially.
If we want people to see our faith and see our intentions, it must be done through action. We can pray in secret. We can pray in our faith communities. But if we want people to see our true intentions, we have to show them through service. And, yes, I believe that prayer can make change. But God uses us as agents of change.
There is a famous quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words." This is to say that we can live and communicate the Gospel through our actions and we know the other adage that accompanies this: "actions speak louder than words."
I believe that St. James and St. Francis took their cues from Jesus. They saw Him both speaking AND acting: from His many miracles of healing to His physical action of giving up His life. The action and image of the cross certainly says more than we could ever say or think. And that action was His prayer.
So thoughts and prayers? Or actions? I say, let your action be united with your prayer let your prayer motivate your action.