Okay, so probably many, if not most, of the people reading this blog KNOW they get super frustrated when they hear the words “thoughts and prayers.” If you are in this group, you may have even developed an allergy to the phrase. You probably even know that it bothers you because of a combo platter of hypocrisy and a lack of action. But you may not understand why you have such a visceral reaction to it, or why and how a brief look at the Bible combined with leadership and listening theory can help us understand why those who identify as Christians ought be way less offended when people get cringey around this thoughts and prayers phrase, and what we can say instead.
Well, hang with me and I’ll unwrap some further dynamics for you using communication field lingo with a sprinkling of Jesus and the Bible, including challenges to unhealthy Western individualism and how the church has let the whole Jesus washing the disciples’ feet thing get weirdly fossilized in unhelpful ways.
I’ll also be discussing how concepts from the study of groups and leadership, as well as understandings of tangible support from collectivistic societies like those in Africa, can help us break out of these unhealthy molds and into healthier models for American society, whether or not we identify as Christians.
My Background and Such
As always, I’m taking this subject on as a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate denomination who went on to become a communication scholar who focuses on stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
And yeah, as it happens, I’m teaching listening responses in my communication classes this week.
And that lesson always makes me think of “thoughts and prayers.” In fact, I always use it as an example. And this theory was one of the things that helped me on my own journey toward understanding the limits of my upbringing when it came to conceiving of healthy spirituality around offering and receiving social support, including meeting physical needs.
Now, mind you, I don’t go into all of the following when I go into it in class (it’s a very small part of a lot of concepts to cover), but repeatedly doing that lecture has helped me think more deeply about all of the following.
Let me explain.
Let’s Talk about Listening Support Responses
See, as we discuss in all my classes, maintaining good relationships through communication involves so much ongoing communication of respect and care to people. And a lot of that is helping people feel heard.
And a good chunk of feeling heard is providing the best listening responses you can when someone specifically asks for support in situations where they feel unsupported.
Now, we don’t always perfectly know which kind of listening support we need, and I don’t have time to list all of the options here. The most important one for this conversation is tangible support.
Defining Tangible Support
To define tangible support, that means meeting physical needs with physical things. Or, to make it only slightly more abstract, it can sometimes mean shifting the tangible world to be more equitable by changed behaviors and policies and resources.
So Much Vulnerability Around Support in Our Unhealthy Society
So yes, I’ll come back to that important point in a second. For a moment, though, let’s talk about the delicate balance that happens when someone asks for support and another person considers whether they can provide that help.
Especially in hyperindividualist societies like my surroundings in the US, both sides may well feel a lot of potential for shame spirals in this situation, especially regarding tangible support.
Yup, We Can Learn from Africa
It’s clear from research into collectivist societies that this is not the case there, at least not to the same degree.
If you read the book African Friends and Money Matters by David E. Maranz (2001), for instance, you’ll see that despite widespread corruption and unemployment, people in Africa manage to support one another through a complicated patron-client system, in which personal connections providing tangible support is able to keep a variety of people alive who would not survive in our much tangibly richer America.
Especially if our stigmatized governmental safety nets fell through.
Still Problems, But Shame for Needing Support Isn’t One of Them
Let’s be clear: there are tons of problems with these kinds of systems too, as detailed in that book. And obviously corrupt individuals still make everything worse for everyone. But, importantly, the same types of shame don’t seem to be present around the ideas of giving and receiving tangible support.
We in the hyperindividualist West, especially the US, would do well to learn from that kind of example.
So Let’s Talk More about This American Shame Problem
See, as Brene Brown so famously defines it in her excellent book Daring Greatly, shame (at least in societies like the US) is about feeling not enough and unworthy of love and belonging. And the truth is that in our hyper-individualist society, even the idea of seeming to have needs is often demonized as some horrible thing.
And a ton of us have been socialized into that unhealthy understanding.
Unnecessary Shame Around Tangible Support
Ultimately, that situation boils down to really unnecessarily delicate situations, especially when it comes to trying to give and receive tangible support.
Because yeah, a lot of us feel hamstrung by our current resources, by bureaucracy, by all sorts of factors in trying to provide either actual physical resources or the big systemic changes needed to genuinely make things better for people.
Assuming We Need to Be Enough ON OUR OWN a Problem
Sometimes we do have some of those abilities. But here’s the hitch: in a hyperindividualist society, sometimes when people ask us for tangible support we get thrown into shame spirals and that hinders us from helping.
See, in a hyperindividualist society, we tend to assume that we’re individually not enough if we can’t do everything on our own.
Which, let’s be clear, is ridiculous if you look at it from a truly rational perspective.
Supremacy Culture Not at All Helping Here
And yeah, this seems to be worse in this society with people with a lot of traditional forms of power—and that problem seems to be worse with conservative folx and especially with those strongly tinged with toxic masculinity and white supremacy and other forms of supremacy culture.
These folx—which let’s be clear, includes an awful lot of us in various degrees—are especially taught not to deal with emotions or shame well at all. This socialization makes things worse for everyone in so many unnecessary ways.
Big Problems Require Complex Solutions Requiring Many Hands
At any rate, these socialized shame responses are ridiculously unfortunate, because none of us should have to act completely on our own when people need tangible support.
What we need is a large group of people working together to provide real change and action in a relay marathon sort of way.
And especially we need people with privilege and in positions of power willing to work for change that allows for more equity in systems of tangible support for those who need it.
People Actively Working Against and Enabling Tangible Support Is A Huge Problem
The problem, of course, is that our unhealthy systems often are not only refusing to offer support to vulnerable folx, they’re often actively traumatizing and exploiting them and then shaming them for it.
Yup, It’s Too Often the Exploiters and Enablers Who Offer “Thoughts and Prayers”
And let’s be clear: it’s often those exploiters, or those who support their efforts, that offer “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of tragedies.
And those tragedies are often at least somewhat preventable.
Not “just” by God, mind you. By humans.
By humans that COULD BE working together to make the world a better place. But are actively or passively choosing a different way, whether because of shame or whatever other reason.
Why “Thoughts and Prayers” Is So Important to At Least Some Christians
And as someone who grew up with a ton of rhetoric around concepts like the power of prayer and the need to depend on God, I absolutely get why people in a lot of churches would find themselves offended by people disliking this phrase. If you’re still in that group and still reading this piece, I hear you.
Okay, But Can We Talk about What Jesus Did and Said? Starting with Matthew 25
But here’s the thing: Jesus said in Matthew 25 that whatever you do for the least of these you do for me, and whatever you don’t do for the least of these you don’t do to me.
Importantly, he follows that famous “sheep and the goats” passage starting in verse 31 with the parable of the talents—or, in some translations, specifically “bags of gold”—in which he points out that more is expected of those with more resources than others.
His examples here—offering water, food, etc.—that he uses here are TEXTBOOK TANGIBLE SUPPORT things. And just to make it clear that he doesn’t expect those without resources to do more than is equitable, he tells a parable just before it making it absolutely clear that he expects more tangible support to others from those with more, what do we often call it? Oh yes, that’s right. Privilege.
Healthy Spirituality as Offering Tangible Support—For Those Who Can
So yeah, if you combine these two parts of Matthew 25 together, it’s pretty clear that Jesus is saying being Christlike is actually to reach out for support, and healthy spirituality involves those who have resources providing tangible support as they’re able.
Tangible Support, Not Being Overtly Religious as Righteous? Ohhhh.
What I am saying is that Jesus, who, if you’ll remember, was from a collectivist culture being from the Middle East, identifies tangible support as a crucial part of healthy forms of spirituality.
Interestingly, he doesn’t actually say you have to be overtly religious to qualify. Which seems to imply that using religious phrasing for things, including phrases like “thoughts and prayers,” is definitely not the only thing that matters. In fact, he seems to be saying it’s significantly less important than other things.
A Message with No Shame and Equity Rather than Equality
So yeah. Jesus in Matthew 25 is defining healthy religion as giving and receiving social support, especially tangible support, according to what you are able to provide.
Let me say that again, Jesus in Matthew 25 isn’t separating goats from sheep based on whether people are overtly religious.
AND in the same passage he’s saying that those who are marginalized are especially worthy of support without needing to feel shame about it. In fact, they’re the ones he identifies most with being Christlike.
Not At All an Isolated Passage: And Not Just the “New Testament”
And his statements on this don’t come out of the blue. I’ve read the Bible a lot cover to cover, and had it read to me a lot cover to cover, having grown up as a pastor’s kid in a church that strongly encouraged such things. And yeah, these are huge huge themes.
See, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament have many many repeated statements about how leaders ought not exploit people, about how taking care of the poor and other marginalized populations through tangible support is a vital function of healthy spirituality.
Way more laws in the first few books traditionally placed in the Christian Old Testament relate to taking care of people’s tangible needs and not exploiting others than they do about anything else, when you look at them in context.
Wait, Also Critiques of Unhealthy Ways of Being
And there are also an awful lot of critiques of unhealthy people and societies that don’t do these things throughout the books contained in both the Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible.
Moving Toward the Broader Rules for Healthy Societies
And oh wait, it’s not just about Jesus, in what many Christians call the New Testament. This whole idea of people in Acts giving and receiving tangible support to one another in an equitable manner? Turns out that idea isn’t remotely some weird fluke.
So yeah, all of that together actually seems to prove a broader rule, which is that the Bible seems to be arguing that yes, tangible support is a vital part of all societies and of spirituality. And it seems strongly to be arguing for equity of tangible support.
And not just spirituality either, but in general. And guess what? This isn’t just a Bible thing. Plenty of communication and social science scholarship shows us that societies in which equitable tangible support is offered and received without shame are healthier societies.
But Wait, Let’s Talk about That Foot Washing Scene with Jesus
Anyway, back to Jesus. Think this whole Matthew 25 sheep and goats passage is an isolated incident with Jesus? So let’s talk about the foot washing. What does Jesus do the night he’s about to die? He specifically offers tanglble support to his disciples by washing their feet.
I’ve come to realize that this action of Jesus’ isn’t some disconnected stylized action, which is how I had seen it growing up with so many Maundy Thursday services. But yeah, I think now that Jesus saw that their feet were dirty, and he was the one who was willing to help them.
Followers of Jesus and Leaders-as-Completers
And yes, I do think from his words he was seeking to model this style of leadership to the disciples as well.In the studies of leadership this is called a leader as completer style of leadership (see Effective Group Communication by Galanes & Adams).
And, lest we feel like all of us can only be Jesus if we do this by ourselves, or that only literal footwashing applies, and that this principle can’t be applied wayyyy more broadly relating to much bigger issues, or any of the other damaging things so many of us were unwittingly socialized into, well, a glance at the leader as completer concept can help us out of that disturbingly damaging box.
Defining the Leader-as-Completer
See, the leader as completer enactment doesn’t mean that the person always does all the work themselves.
What it means is, Jesus saw a need, and he was able to fulfill it, and he did that, as an act of immediate tangible support.
When the Foot Washing Story Is Taken Too Literally in an Individualist Society
Sometimes I worry about the impact of that story on the church, though. Especially the Western church. And especially the conservative-leaning church in America.
See, it feels to me, having only very gradually shifted away from this understanding myself, like people in our culture have made this idea into a shame-based one. By saying that the only way to be like Jesus is to literally or metaphorically wash others’ feet for them, and to do it wholly ourselves.
How Unnuanced Views of This Story Hurt Marginalized Populations
I also see the church applying this story universally without enough caveats. Unfortunately, this application unduly burdens the Marys and Marthas of the world—those in gender roles or classes or other vulnerable groups that are already putting in more than their fair share of the tangible support and aren’t given a space for reasonable rest and tangible support themselves.
So yeah. Looking at it now, next to the broader themes in the Bible around laws encouraging equitable support, and next to the leader as completer concept, I see that idea as honestly damaging.
How This Story Needs to Be Combined with Matthew 25
I mean, yes, the kinds of leaders with all the power and resources and none of the willingness to help, who refuse to do anything themselves, to get their hands dirty and pitch in, absolutely need to hear that message.
You know, the powerful leaders. Especially those who are too often actually exploiting people, or at least enabling systems that do. Isn’t that what the story of the talents, or bags of gold, is all about?
Healthier Applications for the Rest of Us
But the rest of us? Who are wayyyy more limited in what we can do, typically? We can recognize that much bigger problems and smaller resources require a much more, shall we say, collectivist response to this kind of question.
Back to Group Scholarship Concepts to Flesh Things Out
See, in a group scholarship context, the leader as completer concept doesn’t mean anyone who sees a need needs to do it all themselves. In some situations, that idea is completely impossible and ridiculous.
Nope, what the reasonable person who sees a need and wants to exert leadership potential needs to do is to recognize a gap, look at it, and exert basic problem-solving principles to see how best it can be met and who is best to meet it.
That’s it. That’s what it is.
So yeah, let’s boil this down.
Being Christlike is about receiving tangible support for those who need it, and healthy behavior, including spirituality, is about giving tangible support, and other forms, as everyone is reasonably able.
For all of us, some needs are too big for any of us individually to meet. That’s okay. Because, you know, none of us is actually all-powerful, or expected to be.
Why “Thoughts and Prayers” Can Be a Term of Spiritual Abuse
But yeah, it should be clear by now that sending thoughts and prayers can actually be harmful when tangible support is required. That there’s good reason a whole bunch of people have an allergy to it. Because, when offered in the wrong circumstances, uttering the words thoughts and prayers can be a form of spiritual trauma and abuse. For good reason.
I mean, sometimes, let’s be clear, since we’re limited human beings, thoughts and prayers are all that can be offered by some of us some of the time.
How We Can Shift Our Language to Help Avoid Retraumatizing People
And that’s okay. But maybe shift your language in these situations to help out just a bit. There’s alternative language out there.
“May you have the resources and support you need” is particularly one I like lately.
But yeah, hopefully by now you can see that offering thoughts and prayers in those words, especially when you’re coming from a position where you’re able to offer lots of resources, and are in a position to do so, can be seen as intensely hypocritical to those who need help.
If you make those shifts, those both in and out of the church are much less likely to call you hypocritical, and you’re more likely to actually be on the side Jesus calls you to.
So Yeah, That Whole Stewardship Thing Is Important
It’s not on any of us to meet the world’s needs on our own, ever. It is, however, I believe, as Jesus makes clear in the parable of the talents and everything else I’ve already mentioned above, super important to recognize that those in positions of any form of leadership with access to connections or resources or influence to use them with careful stewardship for the good of those with needs.
And that can and should absolutely look differently for different people in different circumstances to solve different problems.
Doing What We Can Where We Are With What We’ve Got
What it boils down to, I think is this, which ought to sound familiar if you’ve been following this space for awhile: We just need to do what we can where we are, with what we’ve got.
And I truly believe that’s enough. It certainly will be if those who have more power and resources truly joined in in the efforts. And let’s be clear—often pushing for that is the very best leader as completer thing we can do.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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