3 Understanding of ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ and Its Lost Significance

With the onslaught of worldwide tragic loss in recent years, we desire to express our grief and empathy over these events. A popular phrase to share concern is “my thoughts and prayers are with you.” Yet while prevalent, this phrase is losing significance.

Sharing your compassion for those experiencing grief is welcomed, but the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is offered so frequently that it may not be taken seriously.

Origin and Meaning of ‘Thoughts and Prayers’

While offering condolences has been commonplace throughout time, using the phrase “thoughts and prayers” appears to have become more prevalent as social media has taken over our communication in the past few years.

With the uptick of mass shootings over the past 20 years, those left with a feeling of helplessness have shared the phrase to express empathy over the tragedy. “Thoughts and prayers” has become a cliché to verbally show concern for tragic events.

The meaning of the phrase is letting someone know you are thinking about them as they grieve and praying for those involved. It is a way to express compassion for those who are hurting.

Biblical Significance of ‘Thoughts and Prayers’

The exact phrase “thoughts and prayers” is not actually in the Bible, it is a cliché or an overused term. Christians should be careful when taking a cliché and trying to fit it into Scripture when it is not actually there. Even though the exact phrase is not present, the connotation is a biblical practice.

The phrase denotes compassion which is a character quality of Jesus Christ that we can emulate. This takes the phrase, “My thoughts and prayers are with you” to a higher level, as Jesus not only verbally expressed compassion, he demonstrated it. Jesus had compassion for the sick, lame, hungry, and ostracized. Throughout the gospels, Jesus expressed His compassion by caring for individuals who were afflicted. 

In Matthew 9:35-36 (CSB), Jesus traveled the area preaching and healing. He felt compassion for the “distressed and dejected.” His compassion moved him to heal and share the gospel with them.

In Matthew 14:14-21, Jesus’ compassion prompted him to heal and feed thousands of men, women, and children. Jesus not only held them in his thoughts, he also acted on his compassion and served them.  

Jesus also modeled praying for those he had compassion for. In John 17, at the last Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus spent time praying for them. He loved these friends he had spent the last three years with, teaching and ministering.

Jesus was about to be arrested and put to death on the cross. He chose to pray for his friends who would witness these events and feel overwhelming fear and sadness. Jesus prayed for their protection for whatever persecution they may face. He also asked God that they would be sanctified or set apart by God’s truth.    

Jesus continued to pray for all believers that may believe in him through the words of the disciples. He prays that God’s love would be poured out to all of those who would come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ compassion for mankind led him to act on his compassion through healing, serving, and prayer.

Verses that Encourage Us to Pray for Others

Jesus gave us the example to pray for others, but another follower of Christ in the Bible also lived his life encouraging and praying for other believers. The Apostle Paul was once a persecutor of Christians named Saul. He traveled from town to town, arresting followers of “The Way” because he believed they taught against Jewish law.

An encounter with the risen Savior on the road to Damascus blinded Paul for three days and led him into a real relationship with Jesus.   

Paul followed God’s calling on his life to preach to Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) throughout the Roman world. He started churches and continued to encourage new believers by writing letters to them.

Paul shares with the church in Ephesus:

I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. – Ephesians 1:16 CSB

Paul continues to encourage believers to pray:

Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request and stay alert with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints. – Ephesians 6:18

Throughout Paul’s letters in the New Testament, he regularly shares that he prays for the believers as well as encourages them all to pray for one another.  

In the book of James, written by the brother of Jesus, it is commanded that we pray for one another. 

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. – James 5:13 CSB

We are commanded to pray over the sick as well as praying over sin for healing:

The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. – James 5:16 CSB

Throughout the New Testament, it is encouraged, modeled, and commanded that we pray for one another. Prayer is not something we should keep to ourselves. As believers, our prayers are just as powerful when shared on behalf of others.

3 Reasons ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Is Criticized

Offering “thoughts and prayers” as condolences is often criticized for various reasons:  

1. It is viewed as an excuse for inaction.

While our words may be kind, there is a greater value when we are called to action. If your “thoughts are prayers” are directed toward a single parent, send them a gift card or offer to watch their children while they have some needed time alone.

Bring a meal to a family going who is grieving a loss or bake for someone going through chemotherapy. While offering “thoughts and prayers” may be sufficient, go the extra mile by following up and serving those who are grieving.

2. The power of “thoughts and prayers” is misunderstood.

Spending time with God creates a relationship and a bond with the Holy Spirit. This relationship allows for your thoughts to become influenced by the Holy Spirit. God can bring a person to the mind of a believer, influencing that believer to pray. Later, the believer may learn of a specific situation that believer was going through and their prayers were needed for strength during that time.  

Those who do not understand the power of the Holy Spirit and prayer will not appreciate someone taking the time to go before God and speak to him on their behalf. Our world has moved away from the belief and value of a relationship with God. If no one has experienced the power of prayer, they are not likely to appreciate “thoughts and prayers” offered in their time of grief.

3. The phrase has become cliché and overused.

Words that are used repeatedly can lose their efficacy. Social media has proliferated the use of “thoughts and prayers” to the point of diminishing it. Perhaps we should consider using other phrases to demonstrate our condolences and empathy. Sharing words like, “I am grieving with you” or “Please know that I am so saddened by what you are going through” can evoke empathy without offering words that people may not value, appreciate, or fully understand.

What Christians Should Remember about This Phrase

While “thoughts and prayers” may hold meaning for a Christian, those who are not believers may not appreciate the phrase the way you intended. We should choose our words carefully when offering condolences, using alternative words to convey empathy.

Also, consider following up with an action that demonstrates your compassion. Just as Jesus’ compassion led him to heal the sick, care for the distressed, and feed the hungry, find a way to meet the needs of those who are struggling.

Coordinating meals for others using sites such as Take Them a Meal, or Meal Train allows them to focus on their healing and not have to worry about day-to-day meals.  Sometimes just sitting with someone and listening to their hurts is all that is needed during a difficult time. Christians must go beyond their words and demonstrate care with action.

The goal should be to help people not feel alone in their trial. Choose words that convey your Christ-like love for them and if possible, follow-up with serving as they heal.

This is how we demonstrate God’s love to one another.