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Essay

“Please, don’t pray for me”

By April 23, 2015 20 Comments
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When my daughter was seven months, I took her to the local aquatic center. She loved the splash zone so much that she lunged for the water when I finally carried her out. We proceeded to the locker room to put on our dry clothes. I set her down on a bench and reached for her diaper bag. In that split second, she rolled over and flopped onto the hard concrete floor. I heard her skin smack and saw her cheek hit as I speedily scooped her up and pressed her to my own body. She cried hard and stress hormones flooded my body. I raced out of the locker room with a naked crying baby in my arms, and shouted for my husband. I was panicked, and I’m sure I looked a fright.

Three well-intentioned people stopped to offer assistance. Two of them would not have passed my pastoral care class. The first woman, as she walked by on the way out of the locker room, rambled advice about putting a rice pack on Eleanor’s cheek. I couldn’t take in her story, and I couldn’t wait for her to stop talking. A second woman calmly introduced herself to me as a doctor, looked at Eleanor’s face and skin, and explained the signs of concussion. This helped somewhat. My daughter didn’t have a brain injury. Plus by the time she finished connecting with me (and “connecting” is the key word here), Eleanor was no longer crying. As I waited for my husband to appear from the men’s locker room, a man approached me and asked if he could pray for us. I blurted out, “No! I’m a pastor,” and clutched my daughter even more tightly.

Days later, when the stress hormones subsided, a good friend and I laughed uproariously at my response to the third well-wisher: “I’m a pastor. I can pray for myself, thank you. Now, bug off!” This panicky response was clearly related to being a first-time, older, sleep-deprived mother of a baby who had spent weeks in the NICU. Which is to say, this was not typical.

Yet, truth be told, it was the response I’ve sometimes fantasized about giving when people ask to pray for me: “No, thank you, keep your prayers to yourself.” Perhaps this sounds scandalous coming from an ordained minister and seminary professor, in fact, one who prays at the beginning of every class and tries to introduce students to a variety of meaningful prayer practices. But it’s true; I’d often like to say something along these very lines. In fact, at times, I have avoided telling people about situations in my life precisely because I did not want their prayers. Why? Because, in my experience, too often Christians use prayer in such a way that it becomes something other than prayer. For the origin and telos of prayer is communion with God; together we commune with God in prayer, and therefore, we commune with one another.

This topic often comes up in my pastoral care classes: when and how to pray with and for people in situations of grief, loss, crisis, perplexity, and vulnerability. I ask my students to consider these questions: Are you praying because you feel awkward, uncomfortable, or anxious in the moment? Are you praying in order to escape the other’s sorrow? Are you distancing yourself from relationship with them by appealing to God to just fix them? Or worse yet, are you trying to demonstrate that God heals through you, and thereby making yourself the center of attention?

I recently listened to someone’s story of acute illness and consequent loss. It was shared in a small group setting. The story was beautiful in all its poignancy, a testimony to living by grace, to being sustained by God’s promises in the midst of their apparent absence. It was imbued with a faithful acceptance of the illness, not hopelessness. At the end, someone offered to pray. It was a fervent plea for complete healing, but one that seemed to lack any internalization of what had just been shared. It seemed to be born of and push toward something other than communion with God. It did not invite us into communion with the one suffering in our midst. It pulled us away from relationship. And that is precisely the crux of the problem.

I suppose I’d like Christians to be bold enough to say something like this to one another whenever prayer gets used in this way: “Please do not pray for me until you have first walked with me. Know me. Hear the depths of my fear or anguish or whatever it might be and let it affect you. Then let us bring our (not just my) most profound needs vulnerably before God. Please do not try to escape that vulnerability. Because if you do, you have left me, and that is not prayer. Nor is it communion with God through Christ by the Spirit. And if you have no words, that is okay, more than okay, in fact. It’s an invitation to sit with me in the awfulness of my predicament and to silently wait upon God together.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 Comments

  • ptnitter says:

    I love this so much Theresa. Thank you for your gracious and true words about prayer and relationship and God. Thank you.

  • April Fiet says:

    Thank you for this!

  • Thank you Theresa. You are correct about sometimes wishing not to be prayed for. When you experience a prayer that does arise out of connection with your story and the desire to connect God with us in the situation, it is a true joy and it brings his peace into the midst of the pain or sorrow.

  • K-fish says:

    Why on earth is this not a big ol’ “duh” for the church community that we live in? Why do we let the well-intentioned over-rule logical, common-sense thinking? Don’t offer to pray for me to fill your void of awkwardness, don’t “bless” me as an email sign-off, and please don’t do use either as a tool to enter into my business!

  • Cranberry says:

    In a foreign country, facing unemployment, I once asked on FB for payer.
    Someone responded with “Done.” As you observed, “[They] had left me and that is not prayer.”

    • Holly says:

      Cranberry,

      I have responded this way numerous times and I can see now how it could feel distancing. My experience is anything but distance. My intent in using this simple word is to communicate that I have “done” what was requested–spent a moment seeking communion with God on the person’s behalf and in reflection on the need noted in the post–and to add nothing else so as not to distract from the person’s request or otherwise draw focus to myself.

      In the future, I will avoid commenting altogether and instead write a more personal IM to the person directly. Do you think that would be better?

      Holly

  • I never assume that someone wants me to pray with them during a pastoral visit. I ask. Usually folks say “sure!” Sometimes, “no, I’m not up for that right now,” or just “no, thanks.” All right by me. Not like prayer is a pill or something that I can administer. Maybe I should ask, “would you mind if we joined hands and dwelt in God’s presence for the next few moments?”

  • Dana VanderLugt says:

    Thank you for putting words to my feelings, and for the validation of not saying things I don’t mean because I was once upon a time taught that I should.

  • Louisa says:

    I seldom am able these days to use words in my prayers … It’s usually a silent lifting of my gratitude, need, vulnerability, situation to a source of wisdom that is way larger than my words, needs, situation gratitude, etc. could understand – know – have words for. Thanks for posting this Theresa

  • Denise says:

    I guess I’ll have to be the dissenter, here. Your article appears to be saying “You aren’t close to me so don’t bother raising your prayers for me. I’m above needing your prayers because I don’t know you well enough to know whether you are praying correctly.” Maybe I’ve misunderstood what you were trying to say (and I hope I have), but that’s what came across to me.

    The innocent bystander who wanted to pray for your situation probably wanted to ask God help you with the fear and uncertainty about the situation, the safety of the child, things he knew would be uppermost in your mind. He didn’t have to know you to pray for those things. But you assumed he didn’t have the right motivation for his prayer and threw the offer back in his face. Yes, “No thanks, keep your prayers to yourself,” sounds scandalous, also arrogant, rude and judgmental, not humble.

    I pray for those who request FB prayers even when I don’t know the details. I also pray for those involved in the car wrecks I see. One of the great things is that GOD knows the details. We can pray for His will in a situation, for Him to receive glory and honor and for Him to reveal Himself to those involved, that they can be brought closer to Him, that He will provide comfort, courage, direction, peace… the list goes on. In most situations, we can have a little bit of understanding of how to pray by thinking of ourselves in the same place, and pray accordingly. Those prayers, offered by those who may not know us personally, are no less effective than the prayers of those who do know us.

    Yes, our prayers should be meaningful and offered in the right manner, but just because we don’t know the details or “walked in their shoes” doesn’t mean we can’t have the right motivation for praying and have meaningful prayer for someone. I know that there are “Pharisees” out there, praying out of wrong motives and attitudes. But there are also people I don’t know, who don’t know me, who are mighty prayer warriors. I am honored to have them praying for me simply because they saw me in need, or heard through word of mouth (or FB) that I needed or requested prayer.

    • Queen says:

      Denise I totally stand and believe in what you are saying. I was asked by an individual I know very well not to pray for them. So I begin to just Pray for their Salvation. Keep doing what you are doing !!! May GOD BLESS and Direct Yoi.

    • Alice Holland says:

      I think this is a load of crap and disgusting for a ‘woman of God’ to reject someone’s prayer in lieu of her own more sacred ones. When we become Christians we are supposed to give up our own sins and failures including PRIDE and Conceit which are the most dangerous of all the others because they cause and allow all the ones ones to dwell in us.

  • jen says:

    I have a lot of people offering to pray for me because I have been living in constant severe migraine pain for the last seven years. Every single day my pain level is between a level 8-10 out 10. I am mostly bedridden. Friends, family and even some people I don’t know have come to my bedside to pray. There have been a few days over the years I was well enough to leave my house and someone I barely knew prayed for me. Many times I have been in so much pain when someone offers to pray for me that the sound of her whisper or light touch on my hand sends me into either a panic of increased pain or actual increased pain. Jesus has been teaching me that people praying for me is not always about me and my comfort or healing. A random person that asks to pray for me might not have ever prayed out loud for anyone before. He/she might need to communicate with God for someone else and then be overwhelmed with God’s love for him/herself.

  • Jaimee says:

    I’m sorry but you’re over analyzing this response to prayer. Let the body be the body. We are called to pray for one another.

    • Pastor Carol says:

      Amen. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us the Bible says even when we don’t know how to pray correctly.

      • Rebecca says:

        This very piece of scripture has been my go verse so often. It is actually my favorite, if I had to determine a verse as such. It has carried me through many valley experiences. God knows my heart, my mind, my pain, & my joy. Always there no matter how dark the time is.

  • Pastor Carol says:

    Jesus said wherever two or more are gathered in my name there I shall be also.

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