In our day and age, many people express words of encouragement to others by saying, "I'm thinking of you today," or "My thoughts and prayers are with you." Statements like these express care and concern and are meaningful to many who receive them. Kind thoughts and words can momentarily bolster someone who's experienced a loss; is struggling with loneliness, or may be struggling in one way or another.
While expressions of encouragement are useful, there's a difference between thoughts and prayers. What are they?
Wishful Thinking vs. Difference-Making Prayer
"I hope you feel better soon."
"I wish there was something I could do."
"I'm thinking of you. Sending good thoughts your way."
These, and other similar expressions, express heartfelt concern and care. While they may be encouraging and express care, how far do they go? On what is the hope, wish, or thought based?
While it's good to express care and concern, it's also good to be careful not to make caring and concern about self. Phrases like, "I'm sending good thoughts your way" can stem from a puffed-up view of one's self- as though that person is a/the source of good things, thoughts, or activities. It may also be that the person saying this presumes to know that they're stronger or in a better position than the one they're expressing concern for. Regardless, that statement can come off as self-centered or as at least self-glorifying.
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. - Romans 7:18
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. - Romans 15:1-7
One way to build up our neighbor (friends, family, others around us) is to pray. Praying for someone else sets them ahead of ourselves. God brings encouragement to the person praying, as well as the person receiving prayer, as we seek Him to accomplish His will in that person's life.
This passage also points toward the Scriptures as the source of endurance, encouragement, and hope. In Scripture we, and others we pray for, find hope. It's a good reminder to search the Scriptures for appropriate verses and passages to pray for/with those we pray for!
Prayer is much different than merely thinking. Going to the Creator, Author and Perfecter of our faith; the All-Knowing, Ever-present, Loving, Gracious, Merciful, Just, Righteous, Wise, All-Powerful God in prayer is where significant differences are made! Prayer goes beyond simple wishful thinking and whimsical hope. When we pray, we carry the concern, problem, or matter directly to the One who can alter circumstances and outcomes. He fully knows all the circumstances and lives surrounding the person or matter in question- but He's also waiting on His children to invite Him to act! He is a Perfect Gentleman- and will not intrude, even if He desires to do so. He wants His children to prayerfully engage Him first!
Caution Against Presumptive Praying
Most people are curious and caring people. When praying for someone in stress or distress, it's often tempting to imagine or guess what the person is thinking or going through right at that moment. Based on that guess or assumption, one may feel led to pray based on that imagination. But can we be sure that our assumption or imagination is accurate or how God would have us pray?
A Better Way to First Pray Instead of Presuming
A very simply way to unclutter one's heart from taking on thoughts that might lead to praying presumptively is to simply pray something like, "Lord, I give my mind and heart to You. Align them with Yours. Please instruct me how You'd have me pray for ___________ at this time."
Then be still and listen for His prompting on how to pray.
God, who is all-knowing, knows exactly where the person is physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He also knows perfectly what He desires to do in or around that person's life (emotionally and spiritually, too)! As praying people, we desire to see our prayers answered and God glorified as He answers. An excellent way to do so is to ask God how He'd have us pray (seeking His will to be done, instead of our own).
The Lord sustains the humble
but casts the wicked to the ground.
His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
the Lord delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love. - Psalm 147:6,10-11
Praying people humble themselves before God. The promise above mentions that God sustains the humble. Praying people, while humbling themselves, are also expressing fear of the Lord (defined as awe, wonder, yielding to His majesty, power, and perfection). The Lord delights in them; those who put their hope in his unfailing love (verse 11). Here, hope is placed in the Lord, our Difference-Maker; not in self, or in some wishful ethereal place, thought, or desire.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. - Romans 15:13
God is our source of hope, joy, and peace as we trust in Him. Hoping or searching for joy, peace, and other things from other sources will always fall flat in comparison. The power of God, through the Holy Spirit, provides hope that is solid and sustaining!
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. - 1 John 3:1-3
Hoping in and seeking God purifies (renews) our minds, hearts, and lives. In Him we receive His limitless love. In Him we're called children of God. What a title and position He's given us! Let's continually fix our prayers, hope, focus, attention, love, and more on God the Father and Jesus Christ!
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand. - "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less"
Following Through in Prayer
God knows our thoughts and minds. While we can think good things and hopes toward others, prayer is what puts those thoughts into motion. Prayer is what moves caring, concerned (but idle) thoughts into active pleas and sets those pleas before God- who can make a substantive difference in that moment, person, or matter.
So, move beyond merely thinking and wishing. Take the matter to Him. Engage God in prayer! You'll likely notice a difference both in the person/matter you're praying for- as well as in yourself as God meets you, grows your faith, and more!