Teaching Kids What “Thoughts and Prayers” Really Means
Two weeks ago, a 17-year-old senior from Parkland, Florida named David Hogg made headlines in the New York Times with his plea for action: “We’re children. You guys are the adults.” Less than twenty-four hours earlier, Hogg had survived an attack at his high school, during which a lone 19-year-old gunman killed 17 students and teachers. Hogg, along with numerous classmates, began not only to call for action from politicians and adults, they began to take action themselves.
Angry Americans have taken to social media in the wake of the tragedy, rightly blasting politicians and pundits who call for “thoughts and prayers” when violence occurs, but who somehow never seem to get around to making changes. To grieving ears, “thoughts and prayers” can sound insincere and even callous. It’s so easy to say, but so meaningless if those words don’t lead to action.
We, as Christian parents and youth leaders, must teach our children that the Christian who truly thinks and fervently prays will often be led to act.
Nehemiah’s story serves as an example how this works. Nehemiah was a captive Jew serving as a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. When some of his fellow Jews came to the palace and Nehemiah heard of the “great trouble and shame” of the Jews in Jerusalem, he was heartbroken. Nehemiah “sat down and wept and mourned for days, and … continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (1:4). He evidently persisted in a posture of prayer for about two months before he found opportunity to act, but when the King gave him an opening, Nehemiah made the outrageous request that he be allowed to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem and use the king’s wealth to supply the project. The king agreed immediately, because the “good hand of [his] God was upon [him]” (2:8).
We can learn several lessons from Nehemiah’s example:
– He had a foundational faith in God before the crisis occurred. Much like Daniel in a different court, Nehemiah lived a life of integrity that even commanded the respect of a pagan king.
– He had a compassionate heart for God’s people, refusing to ignore their plight while he lived a life of comfort in the palace. (Sounds like Moses made an impression on Nehemiah.)
– His immediate response was prayer – focused, fervent prayer that demonstrated his trust in the God who keeps His promises.
– He persisted in prayer, demonstrating his willingness to submit to God’s direction rather than take matters into his own hands.
– He waited on the Lord, but his was an active waiting.
Nehemiah immediately began the daunting task of rebuilding the crumbled wall around Jerusalem. The taunts and threats of neighboring leaders rang in the ears of the builders, but Nehemiah’s response was to pray and to work: “’Hear, O God, for we are despised’… So we built the wall… for the people had a mind to work… So we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (4:4, 6, 9, emphasis mine).
What a beautiful picture of trust in action. In spite of the danger, the workers continued with shovels in one hand and spears in the other, all the while lifting their voices to pray and to encourage one another. These people “had a mind to work” (they thought about what they wanted to do), they prayed about it (“Hear O God”), and they acted on what they believed He wanted them to do, trusting “Our God will fight for us” (4:20).
We must model this same faith-in-action for our teenagers. We must support their desire to effect change while they are young and free from the cynicism that plagues adults.
The point, however, is not to teach kids to take a particular political stance or embrace activism for activism’s sake. In fact, that’s why thoughts and prayers precede action. God leads a young person just as He leads adults: by His Holy Spirit. Paul advised Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul urged Timothy to demonstrate integrity, showing the old folks what it looks like when speech and conduct are congruent with love and faith.
On March 24, teens will march in cities across America to protest violence in schools. “Created by, inspired by, and led by students,” March For Our Lives is just one example of what kids can do when they mobilize for change. Many celebrities have supported the march financially and on social media. On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon said, “I think what the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are doing is unbelievable. They’re speaking out with more guts, passion, conviction and common sense than most adults. They’re high school students — it’s beyond impressive — the strength that they have is inspiring. They’re angry and they are doing something about it and creating change. This is a real revolution.”
Jesus, Moses, and Nehemiah, among many others, started revolutions that changed the course of history. These men got angry when they saw injustice, oppression, and poor leadership which profaned the name of their holy God. They responded with diligent prayer and thoughtful planning which led to decisive action. There are times, however, when prayer itself is the only course of action, and we must guard against the idea that prayer is an ineffective, weak, or insincere response.
This past week, actor Chris Pratt came under fire for tweeting that he was praying for director Kevin Smith, who had suffered a heart attack. The Twitterverse responded with cynicism: “Praying is just a way to feign helping so you don’t have to go out of your way.” Another friend of Pratt’s responded with 8 tweets, defending both Pratt and the power of prayer. He remarked that no one would want or expect action from Pratt in the situation; it would be ludicrous for the actor to race to the hospital, push doctors out of the way, and attempt to treat a heart attack patient.
In many circumstances, prayer is the effective action God wants us to take.
Through prayer we acknowledge our fundamental dependence on our omnipotent and thoroughly benevolent God. By His Spirit, He leads us in action, and He leads us in prayer. “The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).