Over on Ethics Daily, Jen Zamzow published a great piece on why offering thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting simply isn’t enough. In it, she introduces the psychological concept of moral licensing, in which performing a good behavior (like offering prayer for victims) actually decentivizes us to engage in any further positive action. She breaks it down better than I can, but basically, when we do something good, our brains are hardwired to let us off the hook for doing anything else. This has some dire consequences, as she explains:
Now we are all in danger of publicly offering our thoughts and prayers, giving ourselves a pat on our backs for offering our support and then failing to do anything else.
But prayer was never meant to be a substitute for action. Jesus did not tell us to merely pray for those in need; he said to help them. Feed them. Clothe them. Welcome them.
Even for those who genuinely believe in the power of prayer, it is clear that prayer is not enough to solve social problems like poverty, climate change and gun violence.
This why the knee-jerk “thoughts and prayers” reaction to every single tragedy in our world is so problematic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this idea that, “Well, I prayed about that shooting, and that’s all I can do. The rest is up to God.” This defeatist approach is not only bad theology; it’s a logical fallacy that our brains trick us into, as this article lays out.
Yes, we are supposed to pray about the evil we face in this world, and yes, our prayers matter a great deal. But we are called to do so much more than just pray. God’s primary method of acting in the world is through his people. That’s how he’s chosen to work. And as we sit on our hands expecting him to drop out of the sky and fix everything, he’s waiting for us to do the work he’s called us to.
We want to see the world become a better place. We ask God to make it so. And the good news is that God has already put in place a mechanism for improving the world: his people. Us. We could be the the answer to those prayers, if only we would choose to be. If you profess to be a follower of Christ, then you are called by God to take part in his healing work. Not just through your words, but through your concrete, real-world actions.
How do we overcome moral licensing and our own complacency in order to make a difference in the world? Zamzow’s article has an answer for that: “We must remind ourselves what we are praying for.” When we pray, we must also take time to reflect on what we’re actually praying for and how we can live out those values each and every day through what we do.
If we want to see the end of violent tragedies in our world, then we have to take action to counteract those tragedies. If we want to see peace, then we have to make peace. If we want to see healing, then we have to be healers.
We’re not called to pray and wait when we have an opportunity to have an impact. God calls us to pray and do. Prayer is powerful, but if it’s all we’re doing, then we’re falling short of our calling, and we will not make a difference. Prayer alone will not heal the world, but action rooted in prayer and conviction? That just might have a chance.