When You Get Sick, Do You Want “Prayers” or “Warm Thoughts”?

Eduard Veith (1858-1925), “Andacht in der Kirche”
Eduard Veith (1858-1925), “Andacht in der Kirche” (photo: Public Domain)

You are at death's door. You're battling a terminal illness, or facing exploratory surgery, or you just have a miserable head cold that confines you to bed with a heating pad and a big box of Kleenex. So which do you prefer from your friends?

  • Warm thoughts? or
  • Prayers?

The question came up recently because Facebook has been asking me to send “warm thoughts” when a friend has a birthday or special occasion. “Warm thoughts?” I wonder. “What good would that do?” I imagine my friend, sitting at home, and exactly nothing happens. The warm thoughts? Well, they're floating around inside my head, accomplishing just about nothing. At least a phone call or a card with a 49-cent stamp would let the other person know I'm thinking of her.

A prayer, on the other hand, travels a great distance. No sooner does the prayer leave my lips than it flies—faster than the speed of light—up to the heavens where God receives it. The Creator of the universe, listening to my heartfelt yearnings, is happy to hear from me and ready to answer. If my request is not in opposition to his all-perfect Will, he says yes. On those occasions when he must say no, he comforts me.

And my friend who is sick, or grief-stricken, or simply celebrating a happy occasion? God looks with love at this person whom I have brought to his attention. He reaches down and touches that person's soul—sometimes healing, always blessing my friend and covering her in everlasting Love.

Is my prayer some kind of magic trick, a command which my heavenly Father cannot resist? Of course not—but that's not the point. Scripture tells us, in James 5:16, that “The prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (NRSV: The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.) God will use our humble prayer as he sees fit: Sometimes the accomplishment is that our friend's recovery is quickened; sometimes, what happens is that we are ourselves changed for having reached out.

Francis Cardinal Arinze, in a helpful little book titled Draw Near to Me, O Lord: Heartfelt Prayers for Everyday Life, explains how personal prayer, the prayer that wells up from the heart of an individual, is encouraged in Sacred Scripture. “Abraham prayed for a son,” writes Cardinal Arinze.

“...He prayed for God's mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah (although these two cities of sin were destroyed by fire because not even 10 just men could be found in them). Moses interceded for the whole people. Hannah, the wife of Elkhana, prayed for a child. David poured out his heart in a magnificent prayer of thanksgiving when God promised that he would build for David a kingdom that would never lack an heir. Solomon came out with a beautiful prayer at the dedication of the Temple. When he was called by God, the prophet Jeremiah prayed, “Sovereign Lord, I don't know how to speak, I am too young.” But God reassured him and sent him on a difficult prophetic mission. Esther poured forth a beautiful prayer to God for her people's safety.”

Pray for me, please. And I promise to pray, also, for you. 

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

10 Scripture Verses to Strengthen You in Hardship

“The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history. The sacred books powerfully affirm God's absolute sovereignty over the course of events …” (CCC 303)