In the wake of the most recent school shooting in the United States, in Parkland, Florida, survivors have voiced a sentiment that more and more has been heard in the aftermath of these tragedies—that thoughts and prayers are not enough.
On Monday, February 19, 2018, five days after the Florida shooting, high school students from the Washington, D.C. area gathered in front of the White House, lying down for three minutes at a time to demonstrate their oneness with the victims of such slaughter that have so dramatically multiplied throughout the country in recent years. One such student, reported on network television that day, wore a t-shirt stating, “Enough of Your Thoughts and Prayers! We Need Action.” Four days earlier, a former FBI official declared the same thing (1).
It would hardly be fair to assume that those saying these things are necessarily doubting or denying the power of prayer. What they are in fact saying, however, is that in circumstances such as these, mere thoughts and prayers are not sufficient. In a crisis, action is needed.
It isn’t the purpose of this article to invite debate over how gun violence can be forestalled, or whether additional laws on the part of government are needed in the wake of multiplying incidents of this nature. This is not, after all, a secular political website. But what in fact would do us well as Seventh-day Adventist Christians is to ask to what extent, in our spiritual journey both personal and corporate, we too have perhaps hidden behind the veil of “thoughts and prayers”—or similar measures—as the remedy for wrong ideas and wrong actions, while neglecting initiatives of a more proactive nature.
Erroneous views of grace, salvation, and righteousness by faith have, in my view, played a significant role in facilitating this mindset. But despite what many believe, Biblical salvation is not a case of God doing all the work while we simply pray, study our Bible, or engage in similar activities which don’t directly confront the falsehoods and sins present in the faith community.
The Bible calls for action, not just prayer, in the Christian’s struggle with evil. The apostle Paul writes:
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Cor. 7:1).
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, and against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12).
In the above passage from Ephesians, the apostle continues by describing an armor that the Christian is to wear, complete with sword and shield (Eph. 6:13-17). It would hardly make sense for God to give us these implements of spiritual warfare, and then command us to stand aside while He alone does the fighting! That isn’t the Biblical way. Such verses as the following make this clear:
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, For it is God which worketh in you, but to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners, and purify your hearts, ye double-minded (James 4:7-8).
Echoing the theme of these and similar verses, Ellen White also stresses the role of divine-human cooperation in the saving process:
The work of gaining salvation is one of co-partnership, a joint operation. . . . Human effort of itself is not sufficient. Without the aid of divine power it avails nothing. God works and man works (2).
The Lord does not propose to perform for us either the willing or the doing. This is our proper work. As soon as we earnestly enter upon the work, God’s grace is given to work in us to will and to do, but never as a substitute for our effort. Our souls are to be aroused to cooperate. The Holy Spirit works the human agent, to work out our own salvation (3).
The fact that Christ has conquered should inspire His followers with courage to fight manfully the battle against sin and Satan (4).
If we are faithful in doing our part, in cooperating with Him, God will work through us to do the good pleasure of His will, but cannot work through us if we make no effort. If we gain eternal life, we must work, and work earnestly. . . .Our part is to put away sin, to seek with determination for perfection of character. As we thus work, God cooperates with us (5).
We have a work to do to resist temptation. Those who would not fall a prey to Satan's devices must guard well the avenues to the soul; they most avoid reading, seeing, or hearing that which will suggest impure thoughts (6).
Let no one present the idea that man has little or nothing to do in the great work of overcoming; for God does nothing for man without his cooperation. Neither say that after you have done all you can on your part, Jesus will help you. Christ has said, “Without Me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). From first to last man is to be a laborer together with God. Unless the Holy Spirit works upon the human heart, at every step we shall stumble and fall. Man’s efforts alone are nothing but worthlessness; but cooperation with Christ means a victory (7).
Man must work with his human power aided by the divine power of Christ, to resist and conquer at any cost to himself. In short, man must overcome as Christ overcame. . . . This could not be the case if Christ alone did all the overcoming. Man must do his part; he must be victor on his own account (8).
You are to open the door of the heart. You are to clear away the rubbish from the portals, and throw wide the door, that the heavenly Guest may find a welcome and an entrance. Christ will not enter a heart that is defiled with sin. It is our work to put away all iniquity (9).
Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough—Even in the Church
As I’ve listened to the students from the high school where the recent massacre took place, in addition to others, who have protested that “thoughts and prayers are not enough,” I have found myself recognizing that this statement is every bit as relevant to the spiritual experience of contemporary Adventists as it is to the issue of mass violence in America just now.
Though it is most assuredly an imperative for the Christian every day (indeed, every hour), prayer is not enough to solve either the Christian’s struggle with personal sins or the church’s struggle with corporate apostasy. The psalmist declares, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18). Solomon wrote, “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination” (Prov. 28:9). There are those in contemporary Adventism who have long since turned their ears from hearing the law, deriding such messages as “graceless” and “legalistic.” Neither Scripture nor the counsel of Ellen White causes their hearts or consciences to tremble. For such persons, prayer alone is not the answer. Repentance is needed.
The servant of the Lord writes: “There are conditions to the fulfillment of God’s promises, and prayer can never take the place of duty” (10). Prayer is not a substitute for obedience. Neither is it a substitute for church discipline. Prayer alone will not curtail the influence of teachers who promote theistic evolution or the historical-critical method of Bible study. Prayer alone will not redress the damage wrought by theories of grace and salvation which marginalize the necessity of holiness and deny the Biblical promise of divinely-empowered victory over sin. Prayer alone will not remove the blight brought upon the church by the acceptance of practicing homosexuals within its fellowship. Prayer alone cannot bring God’s blessing to a congregation or institution that refuses to submit to inspired correction. Prayer must be accompanied by complete surrender to the written counsel of God, by loving but firm efforts to hold one another accountable to the standards of inspired teaching.
Otherwise, as with the slaughter that of late has again torn fresh wounds and brought new pain, thoughts and prayers alone will not suffice.
2. Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 482.
3. ----Testimonies to Ministers, p. 240.
4. ----The Great Controversy, p. 510.
5. ----Review and Herald, June 11, 1901.
6. ----Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 460.
7. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 381.
8. ----Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 32-33.
9. ----Review and Herald, Oct. 30, 1888.
10. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 143.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.