In response to the latest tragic school shooting, social media is on a warpath against anyone who dares to offer “thoughts and prayers” for the situation. As a few examples:
David Pakman, a progressive talk show host, wrote on Twitter, “Very surprising that there would be a mass shooting at a Christian school, given that lack of prayer is often blamed for these horrible events. Is it possible they weren’t praying enough, or correctly, despite being a Christian school?” (The tweet has since been deleted.)
Investigative journalist Brian Krassenstein tweeted, “Your ‘thoughts and prayers’ aren’t working. Praying only works if you make the changes to help.”
Mervyn Warren, a film composer, tweeted, “The people at that Christian school in Nashville prayed that their children would be safe. How did that work out?”
Scrolling through waves of social media posts like these, I can’t help but wonder how many people who make such comments understand the Christian worldview and the role of prayer within it. The online commentary often reflects a serious misunderstanding of what Christians believe. In this article, I want to clarify the Christian view for both Christians and non-Christians.
Let’s start here: The phrase “thoughts and prayers” lumps two completely different things together.
The “thoughts and prayers” verbiage became part of our cultural lexicon because people wanted a way to request help and/or care from a mixed audience of religious and non-religious listeners. But just thinking something—no matter how charitable those thoughts may be—does nothing. This is something that Christians and non-Christians should all be able to agree on. “Sending thoughts” is simply an expression of solidarity with no practical consequence.
Now, some people would say, “There’s no difference between those inconsequential thoughts and prayer. Thoughts do nothing and prayers do nothing. That’s the point.”
If God doesn’t exist, then that’s true. People are praying to a supernatural being who isn’t there. By saying, “I’m sick and tired of thoughts and prayers because they don’t matter,” you’re basically just stating you don’t believe God exists. Fair enough. In that case, it makes more sense to just say, “I don’t believe in God, so I don’t pray as part of my response, but here’s what I think we should do…”
However, there’s no reason to be resentful of Christians praying to the God you don’t believe in unless you hold the faulty assumption that Christians see prayer as an alternative to other actions and you’re resentful of that presumed choice. That leads me to the next point.
Christians expect to pray and take other action.
When Christians say, “We’re praying about this,” it doesn’t mean we don’t think anything else should be done. We don’t, for example, say we’re praying over the school shooting and therefore we don’t need to have discussions about gun control policy, about how to provide for the financial and physical needs of victims, or about school security. Commenting on how prayer won’t do something, but (fill in the blank) action will, betrays the incorrect assumption that Christians think only prayer is needed. The Bible clearly demonstrates that God asks Christians to pray and take other actions as we’re able in our world.
So what do Christians pray about in a situation like this? A number of things, such as comfort for the victims’ families, that God would bring some kind of good from the tragedy, that those who are injured would heal, that the families of the kids who survived would know how to get the help they need, and much more. But for purposes of this article, it’s more important to understand what Christians don’t pray for…
Christians don’t pray expecting God to rid the world of free will.
Christians believe God created humans with the ability to make morally significant choices. We can use that free will to do good or to do evil. If God had chosen to create us without free will, we would simply be robots. Given this nature of our world, it doesn’t make sense that God would choose to eliminate school shootings specifically—through prayer or anything else. Would He make it so that every time a troubled youth enters a school for such a purpose, they change their mind? Or would He make it so they accidentally break their gun on the way in? Or would He have them fall and break a leg? Or would He make a vicious dog appear out of nowhere to attack them?
It would be a bizarre world where God completely eliminated the free will to conduct a specific type of evil. Christians don’t pray expecting that as an outcome of prayer because it’s inconsistent with the basic nature of the world we believe God created.
The continuation of school shootings literally has nothing to do with whether or not God exists and whether or not God answers prayer.
There’s therefore no reason to look at Christians with contempt for continuing to believe in God and prayer after multiple school shootings. We never expected our prayers to eliminate free will.
Furthermore, it should be noted that if God doesn’t exist, there’s little reason to believe people have free will at all. In an atheistic worldview, life is the product of purely natural forces. In such a world, our decisions would be driven strictly by physical impulses—we would be bound by the shackles of physical law.
As biologist Anthony Cashmore acknowledges regarding his atheistic worldview, “The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will.”
If you don’t believe God exists, then don’t blame a shooter. They would just be acting according to their physical impulses. And don’t blame people for offering thoughts and prayers. They didn’t have a choice.
Finally, if you assume that shootings are evil and something needs to be done, you’re assuming an objective moral standard that only exists if God exists.
I understand the outrage that everyone feels right now. A tragic event like this is evil. But here’s the thing: If you believe that certain actions like killing people at a school are objectively wrong—meaning they are wrong regardless of anyone’s personal opinion—then you believe objective moral standards exist. However, objective moral standards cannot exist unless a higher-than-human moral authority like God exists.
I’ve talked a lot about this moral argument for God’s existence with my kids, and a few years ago, my son came up with an insightful example to illustrate it. He loved Rubik’s Cubes at the time and for some reason had been looking at a video with my husband where someone was using an all-black one. A normal cube has different colors on each square, and the challenge is to turn the cube until each side only has one color.
The day after he saw the video, he came to me with a serious face and wide eyes and said, “I think I have an example of what we were talking about with morality. When a Rubik’s Cube is all black, none of the moves matter. You can do anything. But when they have colors, then there is a pattern you’re supposed to do.”
It took me a second, and then I realized what a great insight that is! If God doesn’t exist, morality is like the squares on an all-black Rubik’s Cube. There’s no right or wrong way to go; no move is better than another because there is no pattern or standard in place. It’s just your choice. In such a world, school shootings can legitimately be considered good or evil. But if God exists, He provides the colors and the objective standard for how they are to line up; we can see where the pieces should or should not go. In such a world, school shootings are an example of what should not happen. On all-black Rubik’s Cubes, however, there can be no should.
So let’s sum up what Christians believe:
- God exists.
- He’s perfectly good, and that goodness is the basis for the objective moral standards by which we can call things good and evil.
- School shootings are objectively evil.
- School shootings and other evil actions will always occur in our world because God created us with free will.
- We don’t expect prayer to eliminate free will because that’s the nature of our created world.
- We pray for God’s help in the midst of evil.
- Prayer is in addition to, not instead of, other human action.
There’s nothing here to resent if you don’t believe in God.
In fact, if you believe that shootings are truly evil and that people have the free will to choose whether to shoot or not, your worldview is actually more consistent with theism than atheism. Maybe you should reconsider prayer after all.
For full conversations to have with your kids on the subjects discussed in this post, see the following chapters in my book, Talking with Your Kids about God:
Chapters 1-6: Evidence for God’s existence
Chapter 23: How do we know God hears and answers prayer?
Chapter 26: Do we really have free will?
Chapter 29: How should we make sense of evil?