What is Wrong With ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ in the Aftermath of the Mass Shooting in Las Vegas?

There was a time in America — not that long ago — when anyone (and I do mean anyone) would at least appreciate hearing that he or she was in the “thoughts and prayers” of another person or group of people. Even if the person in question didn’t believe in God, that person would respond to such sentiments with a nod or a polite thank-you. There was a time when it was altogether appropriate, even expected, that political leaders would express their “thoughts and prayers” to hurting people. Apparently, that time has passed. The aftermath of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada has seen our country become even more polarized. And religious sentiment, no matter how thoughtful or sincere, has become provocative and antagonistic in our increasingly divided culture.

Following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, social media exploded with a torrent of expletive-laden dismissals of anyone expressing thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families – no matter how sincere. Some went out of their way to be as partisan and/or as inflammatory as possible. A few examples…

  • Chris Sacca, a former venture capitalist and periodic Shark Tank guest, tweeted: “Dear Republicans in Congress, F*** your thoughts and prayers. Sincerely, Americans Sick of Gun Deaths.” (The censorship of the F-word is mine, not his).
  • Wisconsin Democratic Party official Khary Peneabaker tweeted: “Politicians will learn of this horrific mass shooting and offer their empty #ThoughtsAndPrayers, which they use as a way to avoid action.”
  • A self-described “Democratic strategist” who goes by the Twitter handle @ProgressOfAKind tweeted: “F*** your #thoughtsandprayers. Seriously. There is no more insincere meaningless comment in American history. It’s a disgusting cliche.” (Again, the censorship is mine).
  • One cartoon that is being widely circulated has a girl asking: “Why didn’t God stop the shooting?” A boy answers: “Because God doesn’t exist. Engage with reality and fix your f****** gun laws.” (Again, censorship mine).

That is just a tiny sampling. Others, while not quite as incendiary, were nevertheless highly critical of anyone who dared to express thoughts and prayers. Indeed, as I write this blog post, the hashtag #ThoughtsandPrayersAreNotEnough is widely trending.

Let’s agree that an insincere expression is always empty – even if it’s dressed up in religious language. In the course of my life, I’ve had many people tell me they were thinking of me or praying for me. In some cases, I could tell the words were quite sincere. In others, not so much. But, in every case, I extended the benefit of the doubt and thanked the person nonetheless. Anyone with a modicum of decency and civility should do the same. Nevertheless, let’s agree that, if and when we express to someone else that we’re thinking of them and praying for them, let’s be certain we’re authentic in that and that we actually follow through on it.

Let’s also agree that people who are hurting need more than just our thoughts. (More on prayer in a moment). If a patient is wheeled into the emergency room, that patient is going to need more than the “thoughts” of the nurses and doctors present. I get that. I think we all get that. But…we have to make a distinction between the individual and society as a collective. As an individual, I can’t help all patients in all emergency rooms throughout the world. I can’t even, as an individual, help all the patients in the emergency rooms in all the hospitals within driving distance from me. I don’t have the time, energy, training, or capacity to do so. But, certainly, our society (collectively-speaking) must do more for patients in need of health care that simply think about them. The same is true for Las Vegas.

As a society, we should do more for the victims and families of the Las Vegas shooting than simply think about them. But, not every individual in the world is able to do something tangible for those affected. Some can. Many can’t. Most can’t. How exactly, for example, is a single mother in Paris, France supposed to help the families of those killed in Las Vegas? What about a lady I know who is hospitalized currently in Baltimore? What can she do for the victims and their families? What about the teenager in Boise, Idaho or the first grader in Biloxi, Mississippi? Not every individual can help. In many cases, they ONLY thing some individuals CAN do is… you guessed it… express their sorrow and pray. That’s it. That’s all many people can do.

Can some people do more? Absolutely. And King Solomon’s wisdom is the key. For it was the great Israelite king who once wrote: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so.” (Proverbs 3:27). Each person, when confronted with a neighbor or fellow citizen in need, should consider the type of help a person in need requires and whether he or she is able to offer such assistance. If you see a person in need, and that person is worthy of assistance, and you are able to give such assistance, then you are morally obligated to do so. If you don’t, then your “thoughts and prayers” are empty. But if you’re NOT able to give such assistance, then expressing your thoughts to that person and praying for them may be all you can do. And you shouldn’t feel guilty about that, and you shouldn’t let anyone else make you feel guilty about it.

What’s more, many of the people expressing thoughts and prayers for the Las Vegas victims and their families, as well as those affected by the recent hurricanes, are doing more. Churches are responding in Las Vegas with counseling, hospital visits, bringing meals to families in need, and much more. Many people are lining up in record numbers to donate blood. Money is being donated. Don’t assume that people who express thoughts and prayers are only thinking and praying.

Speaking of prayer… If you’re an atheist or an agnostic, I understand that you’re liable to consider prayer meaningless. That’s your right. But it’s not asking a lot for you to be polite to those with whom you disagree. If God isn’t real, then it doesn’t hurt you to have someone pray for you – or to have someone pray for others – or for someone to encourage people to pray for one another. None of that hurts you. That is, forgive me, unless you’re a hyper-sensitive “snowflake” who can’t handle hearing or seeing ideas or concepts with which you disagree. If you’re in that camp, there’s nothing I can say to change your mind. Humanly speaking, you are a hopeless case. Only prayer can help you. But…if you have at least a slightly open mind and/or a small scrap of decency, then let people practice their faith in peace. Let them pray and go about your business. It doesn’t hurt you. In fact, it helps. That’s right. It helps. When people pray for one another, it actually reinforces positive thoughts and goodwill in our society. And we need more, not less, of that.

Of course, I believe in the power of prayer. I believe in God. And I believe in prayer. And I believe our nation needs prayer now more than ever. If you disagree, that is your right. But let us disagree in peace. As for me, I will keep praying…in the good times and the bad, but especially in the bad. I like what Max Lucado once wrote: “Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.

I also think of the words of Abraham Lincoln, a man who knew a thing or two about suffering and hardship. Lincoln said: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”

Yes, we as a society should not stop at thoughts and prayers. We should look at the mass shooting in Las Vegas and see what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. Yes, as individuals, we can write our elected leaders and challenge them, pressure them, to do something. Yes, yes, yes.

Like many Americans, I’m all for putting our gun laws on the table to see what changes can be made to help prevent such mass shootings in the future. That should include looking at how our existing gun laws can be better enforced. But I’m not going to get “tunnel vision” and look ONLY at gun laws. Let’s also look at the overall mental health situation in our country, and let’s see if some changes in our mental health laws and practices might help prevent such tragedies. Let’s also look at the condition of the American family. We now know that the perpetrator’s father had a fairly interesting track record on the wrong side of the law. Don’t you think that had something to do with this? And, while we’re at it, let’s look at the overall moral condition of our society. What has happened in America over the last few decades that has made acts of evil like this more common? And what can we do about it?

Let’s put it ALL on the table!

But, as we’re putting those issues on the table, let’s also be in thought and prayer for the people affected — and for our country. It’s not one or the other. It’s BOTH.

No one should toss out a “thoughts and prayers” sentiment with the intention of ducking his or her responsibilities as a citizen or as a neighbor. But, at the same time, no one should make the assumption that other people, when they express such sentiments, are doing that. You do not know the thoughts of other people. Don’t assume sinister motives on another person’s part just because you might disagree with that person on some issues. When you do that, you’re frankly part of the problem in America. Not part of the solution.

Our society will be a much better place if and when we, by default, ascribe positive intentions to others and give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’s clear from the aftermath of this tragedy that we have a long way to go to get there. But I hope those reading this will agree it’s worth it for us to make the journey.