We hear it a lot – thoughts and prayers going out. But who do those thoughts and prayers go out to? And to what end? As the recipient of those thoughts and prayers, do we care? Should we care? Actually, I believe we should.
One day when I arrived at work on a college campus, I saw someone walking over to a table to join someone who was already there. It was the first week of classes – and all the fraternities, sororities and clubs were trying to recruit new members. The person who was already at the table said to the new arrival – “Thank God you’re here!” Sounds good. Until I saw they were working the humanist table. They don’t believe in God. So who exactly was being thanked?
Since then – I often wonder who is being addressed when someone talks about “God”.
This morning I was wondering something similar about this phrase – “my thoughts and prayers go out”.
I first wrote this in November 2015. It’s now May 2019. Time for an update after more years of life, lots more reading and research, and a whole lot more prayer about what I write.
Our thoughts and prayers go out, but to who?
When we say, “our thoughts and prayers go out to you”, who are we sending them out to? Do we actually believe someone’s listening to them? Assuming the answer’s yes, do we also believe that someone can / will do something about them? The answers to those simple questions matter. If we can’t honestly answer “yes” to both of them, then it’s just words. Presumably good intentions, but with no expectation of any results. Essentially, without belief in some sort of response to our thoughts and payers, it’s wasted breath on our part. And a meaningless gesture to the recipients.
“Our thoughts go out”. To who? To what end?
Thoughts just “going out” aren’t really directed at anyone. It’s just thoughts. What do we expect when we say this?
“Our prayers go out”. To who? To what end?
Presumably, given that the word prayer is used – these prayers are going out to “a god” of some sort.
Praying to God – or a god?
If it’s not the Capital “G” God of Abraham – who is it?
If you are praying, but not to the God of Abraham – is your prayer even directed to someone?
And what do you expect from them / him / her / it?
Are you like the humanist I saw – who clearly just said the words, but they had no meaning to him. Or else, he really wasn’t a humanist.
Maybe you’re like the people Paul encountered in Athens?
Ac 17:22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
This God – the God of Abraham that Paul is proclaiming – is the only One who actually hears your prayers and can do something about them. If you’re not praying to Him – I invite to you start.
But what if you are praying to the God of Abraham? Do you ever pray / talk to Him at other times? If so, do you really believe that He hears you? Do you really believe that He can do anything about your prayers? Or do you think that maybe He has no reason to listen to you – because you aren’t good enough? Or maybe this is the only time you pray – so you figure “Why should He listen?”
I have to tell you – if you believe this – you’re not alone. It’s been going on for a long time. And it’s wrong.
Is God even listening to you?
The quote below is from Psalms – a book that all who believe in and pray to the God of Abraham read. In it, David has done something wrong. He knows that God has every right to turn away from him – and ignore him – because of what he did. He’s begging God to not do that.
Ps 51:10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Ps 51:11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Ps 51:12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Ps 51:13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will turn back to you.
David’s asking God to cleanse his heart. To not just turn away from him – or take His Spirit away from him. David is asking God to forgive him. To keep him in His presence.
I’ve been there. So have many of you. And He does do that. Of course, if we say words like that but don’t really mean them, then God’s not going to do it. When our thoughts and prayers go out, whether they’re for someone else or for ourselves, what’s in our hearts matters. Words alone mean nothing and accomplish nothing. When we direct them to God, and when we honestly mean them, then they begin to mean something.
Then David says He will teach others The LORD’s ways. And people will turn (back) to Him.
Which is what I’m doing now. If you’ve been ignoring Him – or think that He’s been ignoring you – just say and mean the words that David said in verses 10-12. After that – when your relationship with God is right – you will also want to do what David says in verse 13. As I am trying to do now.
God really does listen to our thoughts and prayers
It’s unbelievable, really. To think that a relationship, as badly broken as the one each of us has with God, can be restored. But it can. He promised that it would be. And He follows through on that promise when we ask – and truly mean it.
Jer 24:7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
When you send out your prayers, if you aren’t already doing so, send them out to the God who said the verses above.
He’s waiting to hear from you.
The thing is, as the Jeremiah verse says, They will be my people, and I will be their God. If we look at God as a magic genie, or as someone just waiting around to answer our every need no matter how we live our lives, we aren’t being His people. And that means He’s not going to be our God – not in terms of listening to our thoughts and prayers. Maybe the one exception is if / when our prayer is to become one of His people.
Our thoughts and prayers – what about the recipient?
So we see how important it is that the person saying, “our thoughts and prayers go out to you” really means what they say. And that those words need to go to someone who can actually do something about those thoughts and prayers. But what about the recipient? What about the person(s) to whom those words are being spoken?
For me, as a Christian, that matters as well. Honestly, if they are said by another Christian, a Muslim, a humanist, Etc, they show an act of caring. That is, unless they’re just meaningless words. But if the person means what they say, then there is an element of caring in them. And that’s a good thing.
However, when it’s another Christian saying, “our thoughts and prayers go out …”, then it means more to me. To me, coming from another Christian, it’s not just thoughts – it’s prayers.
However, when the words go out to someone other than the God of the Bible or to no god at all, then they are thoughts. Words to some god other than the God of the Bible are not prayers in the sense that I use the word prayer. They are still good words. They show a relationship with some level of caring, respect, or some other good quality. And that’s worth having. However, I believe prayer requires that both the speaker and the recipient of those words must share common ground regarding who the words are directed to.
Is this a position of hate or being mean?
Undoubtedly, some will feel my words are just that – mean or even hateful. But they aren’t intended to be that at all. As I said, the friendship or whatever relationship exists is important. When someone says, “our thoughts and prayers go out …”, and means it – it’s an expression from one person to another that they care. But if it’s not praying to the God I believe in, then it stops there. I have no expectation, in fact no desire, that the words are anything beyond a personal expression of caring.
And, I fully expect that when I say, “my prayers go out to you”, to a non-Christian – they most likely have the same beliefs about my words. If I said, “my thoughts and prayers go out to you”, to the humanists I referred to earlier – I see no reason why they would have any expectation from me using the word “prayers”. They don’t believe in God. Why should they care if I pray for them? It’s similar for atheists. Some might even be offended if they knew I was aware of their atheist beliefs.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to you – So what’s the big deal?
After all that, I guess the main thing is to get people to think about it when we say those words.
Maybe it’s not so obvious, but they can range from mindless nothing words, to showing a person that we care, to praying to a God who can do something about those words. That’s important for us, the speaker. It forces us to examine what we’re doing. Hopefully, it makes us put ourselves in the other person’s position. Makes us think about how our words might be received by that other person – before we say them.
If we are Christian and we say, “our thoughts and prayers go out to you”, it should bring up a number of thoughts for ourselves. Things like actually praying, as opposed to saying we’ll pray and then doing nothing. And that brings up looking at our position with God so that when we do pray, we can be assured that God’s listening. After all, praying while we’re actively pushing God out of our lives isn’t likely to have much of a result, if any.
Also, when it’s a case of one Christian to another, we should think about something Jesus told His disciples, shortly before His death on the cross:
Jn 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Yes, we’re supposed to love our enemies as well. But there’s something above and beyond that when it comes to fellow Christians. If anything, it’s even more important that our words are not empty.
The other thing is about when we hear those words. If they come from someone of a different religion, or even someone who’s anti-religious, don’t be offended. If that person cares enough to show you the respect of saying, “our thoughts and prayers go out to you”, accept them as thoughts. Accept them as a sign that you have at minimum an acquaintance who cares enough to say them. Maybe you even have a close friend that really cares about you as a person. Either is far better than having an enemy that hates you and thinks it’s wonderful that you’re grieving over something.
Out thoughts and prayers go out to you – conclusion
For fellow Christians, remember something Jesus said –
Love for Enemies
Mt 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Don’t be nice to get a reward. And don’t be mean just because someone else is. Whether we are saying or hearing the words, it doesn’t matter whether the other person likes us or not. Treat them with love.
When we say, “our thoughts and prayers go out to you”, really mean it and really pray for them.
When we hear, “our thoughts and prayers go out to you:, accept them. And then turn around and pray to the God of the Bible. If the words were from a Christian, maybe a prayer of thanks that God placed them in our lives. If they’re not Christian, pray for God to reach out to them. They reached out to us to let us know they care, so why can’t we at least pray for them to find the God who created them and cares very much for them?
The Shepherds and the Angels
Lk 2:8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Notice what the angel said –
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
When we, Christians, pray for non-Christians, we should remember this. Jesus’ birth is good news of great joy for all the people. However, that good news is rejected by most people. What if our moment of grief, when a non-Christian cares enough about us to send their thoughts and prayers out for us, we also send out our prayer to God? Our prayer is for that very same person to come to know the great joy that’s possible by coming to know Jesus.
Even in our moment of grief. Maybe especially in our moment of grief, can we not take the time to reach out to God for someone who cares something for us? Reach out to God, and pray for their lives to turn into an eternity of great joy for them?
If you’d like to read more about prayer for and talking to non-Christians, you might want to check out: