by Kelsey Knobloch
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
It wasn’t too long ago that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” came under fire. It was lambasted as an easy, simple, and ultimately worthless response to horrors and tragedies that were experienced. As the argument goes, ‘thoughts and prayers’ aren’t good for anything. They don’t make a lasting difference (or any difference at all) in the lives of those experiencing tragedy. Instead of ‘thoughts and prayers,’ try ‘action and change’ or donations to a meaningful cause that enacts reform. Thoughts and prayers are nebulous and ultimately useless.
As Christians, this is a hard thing to hear. We’re told throughout scripture to pray. Jesus teaches us how, emulating prayer consistently for us throughout the Gospels. The Old Testament prophets pray constantly, and get active responses! In the Epistles, we’re told to pray without ceasing. We hear how Paul’s prayers got him and Silas out of prison (Acts 16:25-26). Jesus prays so hard during the passion story that he sweats blood (Luke 22:44). The prophets constantly prayed for the people under their care, in many and varied circumstances. Prayer is what we’re good at! We’re told to give thoughts and prayers! But now they’re not good enough?
Don’t mishear me: while thoughts and prayers are a very real tool in our repertoire, there are often many other ways we can enact change in the lives of those around us. Lutheran World Relief consistently runs fundraisers to provide life-saving resources to those in crisis. Mission trips and work camps do wonders across the globe as Christians seek to make a difference in the world and invite God to build His kingdom here, within us and our communities. Here at Good Sam, our Food Pantry and the Soup Kitchen on our campus make a real difference in food insecurity in the county. We often can, do, and should make a real, physical difference in the lives of others. We should be finding every opportunity to do God’s work with our hands.
But thoughts and prayers matter. They’re real, they’re powerful, and they make a difference. One of my favorite examples of this comes from the Old Testament. Most are familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis. It’s a stand-in example for any depraved society in so many different examples. But I’d like to focus on the bit before the destruction.
In Genesis 18, Abraham prays for the people of Sodom. It’s often glazed over in favor of the fire and brimstone, but Abraham, chosen by God only one chapter earlier, prays to God for mercy. What happens? His thoughts and prayers enact change!
23Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” (Genesis 18:23-26)
Abraham prays, and God listens! He changes His mind, and promises lenience for the sake of any righteous that might be found in the city. That’s a real change! That makes a difference! Even better, Abraham doesn’t stop there. His prayers continue (one might even say without ceasing).
[Abraham answered,] “Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” (Genesis 18:28)
The prayer is a conversation, a talk back and forth between God and Abraham, a discussion. It continues on from there: what about 40 righteous? 30 righteous? 20? 10? Each time Abraham deigns to speak to God, and each time God relents. Each time he prays, God listens. Each time he asks, God responds.
I keep in contact with quite a few people in Texas. Not only family, but friends I talk to week after week. Recently one of my friends had a family member pass away. While I wasn’t sure what their faith or belief background was, I told them nonetheless: “I’ll pray for you.” I went on to explain that even if they didn’t personally believe in God at all, from roughly 1500 miles away, this is what I’m able to do. Even more than that, this is the change I can evoke. I can’t offer to make a meal or drive them to the funeral, but I can pray for peace and comfort, and I know my prayers will be answered. I know it will make a difference. I know God will hear and answer.
In the same way that God responds to Abraham, He responds to us. Maybe not in the time or way we want or expect, but prayer is powerful. James 5:16 says that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” It makes a difference. When is the last time you’ve given prayer the chance it deserves? When is the last time you did something to help and prayed? When did you realize you couldn’t help immediately with your hands, so you instead helped with your heart, through prayer? Prayer makes a difference. Pray.