What Does it Mean When You’re in Somebody’s Thoughts and Prayers?

by Rachel Syens

“You’re in my thoughts and prayers” is a phrase we hear regularly–read by newscasters, trending on social media, in statements from politicians and other public figures. This often follows a large-scale natural disaster or national tragedy, but sometimes we hear it from our own friends and families too—when someone we love is sick, or we have difficulties in our lives, we’re told we are in “thoughts and prayers.” But what does it really mean to be in someone’s thoughts and prayers?

In recent years, the term “thoughts and prayers” has come under fire for being an empty blanket statement, a pre-written response to any kind of tragedy without true thoughts or prayers behind it. Sometimes we say “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” when we don’t know what else to say. But we know that prayer is a powerful tool, and when we promise to pray, we need to follow through. How can we, as Christians, use and act on the phrase “thoughts and prayers” more meaningfully?

Called to pray

As Christians, we are called to pray. Prayer is mentioned in the very first book of the Bible: “Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26). Generations later, prayer continues to be important. In the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks on prayer. He reminds us not to pray “to be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5) doing it, but to “close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:6). Prayer is a spiritual discipline. As Courtney Jacob writes for our sister ministry, Groundwork: “Even though they’re basic habits, [spiritual disciplines] are not always easy habits for us to engage.” It’s easy enough to say we’ll keep someone in our thoughts and prayers. The difficulty is engaging in the act of prayer itself. If we tell someone that we’ll keep them in our thoughts and prayers but don’t follow through, we’re breaking a sacred promise. The book of James tells us: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Prayer is not only powerful and effective, but it also provides comfort. Knowing that someone is praying for us is a comforting thought, and one that brings us in closer community. Matthew 18:19 says: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”

The intersection of thought and prayer

Recently our Prayer Ministry put out an ebook titled, “How Do I Pray?”, with many different ideas and practices for how to pray more meaningfully and purposefully. But is there one right way we can pray? Spoiler alert: the answer is no. The important thing is not how we pray, but that we do pray. Perhaps it works best for you to set aside a time each day to specifically pray for those in your life. Maybe it helps to keep a prayer journal of personal requests and national tragedies. Maybe you “pray continually” throughout the day, almost like a stream-of-consciousness conversation with God. However you do it, you are actively thinking about the person or event and are making a conscious decision and effort to pray. This is what it means to be in thoughts and prayers—to be so loved and cared for that your needs are considered and petitioned to God by others.

The Bible tells us to pray in joy and pain, in triumph and defeat, in anger and celebration. While we often associate the idea of “thoughts and prayers” with tragedy, we can also offer praise for good news. “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2). If the Lord has answered a prayer for a friend, provided joy or comfort after a hardship, remember that keeping your loved ones in “thoughts and prayers” can also mean to offer praise.

Late theologian and author Eugene H. Peterson wrote: “Action without prayer thins out into something very exterior. A prayerless life can result in effective action and accomplish magnificent things, but if there is no developed interiority, the action never enters into the depth and intimacy of relationships.” When we engage someone in our thoughts and prayers, we build a deeper relationship not only with them and their needs, but with God. Prayer is an act, and a commitment. When we tell someone they’re in our thoughts and prayers, we are committing to bring their suffering, worries, or jubilation in front of God. The act of prayer is a gift, and a beautiful way to show love for your neighbors.