Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pray For Me

As a pastor I am asked to pray for people all the time. Even more frequently situations come up in which the socially appropriate, expected response is "I'll pray for you." When those situations come up, more often than not, other people around me are uttering the familiar phrase and I am looking befuddled like "why did you say that?"

I have been working and working to understand this impulse, but something deep in me strongly resists uttering the words. Oh I've said them. Usually when the external pressure was so intense there seemed to be no polite way to avoid it, as when every other person in the room has made their pledges of prayer and then turned to look at me patiently, but expectantly. Or when I felt completely helpless or lost for other possible responses to a situation... but it is precisely in those situations that I feel most convicted that it is the wrong thing to say and the moment the words have left my mouth I regret it.

Partly I resist the words because they make me into a hypocrite. Yes I actually do pray for other people, but not as often as I have promised I will. Far too often my pledge of prayer has been worthless. I promise myself every day I will get better about keeping lists and remembering everything I am told, and I will be more disciplined about when and where I say my prayers etc... etc... but until I am a better person than I am right now I will keep breaking promises to myself and to you.

I also do not like promising to pray for people because it is too easy. It is something I can say if I don't want to commit to something more difficult. It is easy to avoid the work of compassion, attention, and presence and still maintain my veneer of empathy by promising my prayers. Sometimes I just don't have time for your problems. You know that too, but neither of us want to admit it. So we are both given a little guilt-reprieve by me promising to pray for you.

It also glosses over times and places when there really is nothing I can do. Rather than live with the discomfort of admitting my helplessness I can promise to pray and instantly banish awkward feelings. It is a subtle and effective barrier between me and some very ugly feelings. Oh, your cancer is inoperable? That makes me feel very sad because I love you and don't want to lose you. Promising to pray for you helps keep me in denial. Your situation makes me feel frightened because it reminds me of my own mortality? Promising to pray for you keeps me distracted. Your situatiom makes me feel guilty because I want to be able to help? Promising to pray for you satisfies my need to be helpful.

Pledges of prayer don't make sense theologically to me. First of all, my primary understanding of the purpose of prayer is that it is a discipline of sanctification. It is a process we go through for the transformation of our own hearts and minds into the heart and mind of Christ. We open ourselves to the inspiration of the Spirit and hope that prayer changes something - ourselves. So when I pray for someone else I do so primarily to teach myself compassion. This discipline is undermined by the words "I'll pray for you." It is undermined because compassion which seeks attention to itself is insufficiently humble. It is undermined because every time I promise to pray, but then do not, I strengthen my vice of respectability. I substitute the public appearance of empathy for true compassion. Like eating junk food in place of real food I slowly poison myself.

Secondly, even if you believe that intercessory prayer is meant to effect miracles in the world beyond inward transformation, what does pledging to pray accomplish? These are separate actions. Praying for miracles is one thing. Pledging to pray for miracles is another. If you care about that person and can perform miracles what difference does it make if they know you intend to do so? Is it so that you can get credit if or when the miracle occurs? So they won't be caught by surprise when their cancer suddenly goes into remission? Does the pledge make the prayer more powerful somehow?

Ultimately, as best as I am able to discern, people promise to pray for each other because it is a nice thing to say. It is the common Christian way to express concern and let people know you are attempting to sympathize with them. It is the equivalent of a get well card or a thank you note, but requiring less effort. I try to see it in the best possible light when people promise to pray for me (though it gives me no comfort). I realize they are just trying to express their support.

Still, as I am standing in conversations at fellowship hour, or scanning my twitter feed, or reading updates on facebook, I constantly bump into this phrase, "I'll pray for you." And part of me wonders, "why did you say that?"


Doug Hagler said...

We've certainly been having similar thoughts lately - I was thinking of a similar post.

My take, though, is my sense that the things that a standard-issue Protestant is supposed to be really good at and highly motivated to do - pray and believe things - I am not good at and often don't feel motivated to do. The more time passes, the less I care one way or another about belief as such, and I've never had a time in my life when 'standard', closed-eyes-and-talking-to-God prayers were a significant part of my life.

I can't avoid the sense that I'm just doing it wrong.

I also have the feeling that we Protestants especially have drawn far too small a circle to encompass "spiritual" behaviors. You never hear about art or sex or protest or writing or reading (with the exception of the Bible) or thinking or dance or building or eating or enduring as "spiritual" behaviors - just believing and praying. And those are things I am not particularly good at.

So I suppose I have this experiment going - is it possible for sanctification to involve anything beyond believing and praying? Is it possible for someone who does not believe well or pray well to be sanctified?

We'll see.

Doug Hagler said...

In response to your question, my guess is that often people say "I'll pray for you" because of a mix of the motivations you listed combined with the fact that there's a good chance that religious person X does in fact pray regularly. At least, I hear about it a lot, so I assume they do.

I'd be happy if we were just able to break open the idea of "prayer". How many distinct things can the word "prayer" refer to before it loses much of it's meaning? Maybe I do some of those things.

Alan said...

More often than not, when I hear the phrase, "I'll pray for you" it's just self-satisfied, passive-agressive shtick from someone I'd actually prefer would not pray for me, since I strongly suspect their "pray for you" means "pray against you." I usually respond, "I really would rather you didn't" which usually garners very satisfying reactions.

Aric Clark said...


I completely avoided mentioning the kind of "I'll pray for you" which is actually an attack. The kind said when it is not about your health or safety, but because they disagree with you on something and want to imply that your mortal soul is in peril. That is a separate kind of problem in my opinion.

@ Doug,

Not surprised we think alike. And I think you do hear about sex and reading and art and protest and everything else as spiritual disciplines - from Catholics and Orthodox and mystics, hippies, weirdos, and others. Not so much from mainline protestants until more recently.

Nick.Larson said...

Maybe I'm just to play out the contraindication on this one, but what if people actually do intend to pray for you when they say it?

Doug: I understand your internal struggle to identify with "closed eyes and talking to God" prayers, but some people really do.

I had a congregation member at my first church who always prayed for me and my ministry, in fact I bet you she is still doing that daily. Her life was rich and full and she, in my best estimation, spends over an hour doing "standard" or "intercessory" prayers. And you know what the best part is...I like that she does it for me.

So while I can agree that sometimes it's used to placate or dismiss an person/idea, it isn't always.

I also happen to believe that prayer changes things (and not just in ourselves).

Aric Clark said...

@ Nick,

Intention is not my primary concern. I'm sure almost everyone has good intentions, most of the time. When one actually does what they pledge that removes the problem of hypocrisy which was one thing I brought up...

but it does not remove the problem of it being a shortcut away from genuine compassion, of avoiding the reality of our helplessness in many situations, of drawing attention to intended compassion such that it distracts and potentially undermines the effort toward compassion, or of simply advertising something without purpose. It is more than just a matter of whether or not you have a discipline of intercessory prayer or believe that said prayer has wonder-working power. It is about questioning the purpose for stating publicly your intention to pray.

Nick.Larson said...

My point isn't just that intention matters, but in reality, the statement can be a good intention and a real connection to compassion, that engages them deeper into the issues at hand.

IMO a person engaged in prayer for a helpless situation can keep it fresh in their minds and stating it publicly can actually serve to raise the visibility of hardships and difficult issues in their lives/church/etc.

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking over this post for awhile now. And without getting lost in conversations on the nature and power of prayer, I think Nick answered your question of why we tell people we prayer for them... they like it.

I agree, that you shouldn't feel forced to tell someone that you are going to pray for them. Especially, if you aren't going to. I try to avoid that myself (but that is not very difficult for me). Nor do you need to tell the people that you pray for that you are doing so.

However, there are times when I know there is nothing that anyone can do to aleviate my troubles. At those times the MOST anyone can do is to pray. It is also at those times that being acknowledged of being prayed for is the most beneficial to me.

-Betsy Malloy

presbybug said...

It's very simple. We say "i'll pray for you" because we don't have the guts to put a hand out, feel socially awkward, and PRAY RIGHT NOW, wherever we are.

I'm trying to replace the "i'll pray for you" with "can we pray? now?" and it can be silent if necessary.

Doug Hagler said...

That's what prayer is for me much of the time - the thing I do when I can't do anything else. Or the thing I do in public as part of leading worship or a Bible Study. It's either liturgical or an act of desperation.

Aric Clark said...

@ Betsy

I want to affirm your experience in the most straightforward way possible without condescension. I tried in the post to keep it entirely in the first person so it could not be understood that I assume everyone has the same experience as me.

Where I think I may extend my critique beyond just my subjective experience is to point out that at least one Christian (an ordained minister at that) does NOT like to be told "I'll pray for you" and does not like to tell others that. I'd be hesitant to say it is some widespread majority, but it is common enough based on my observations in pastoral care, that I think it is dangerous for us to assume "they like it" as you put it.

Some people like it, but many others probably tolerate it because it is an expected social nicety when they find it offers them little comfort. Others probably have never thought about it one way or another and just do it without thought. Still others are actively upset when told they are receiving prayers because they have been hurt by a church that is quick to pray and slow to help.

Again... I totally support your experience. I'm not trying to give offense, but I think it's important to speak honestly on stuff like this, since the temptation for someone in my vocation is strong to "keep up appearances".


I hear you. I think the courage to pray publicly, spontaneously, and with other people is something often lacking in our denomination.

Anonymous said...

@ Aric

I wonder if your dislike for the "You'll be in my prayers" and its variants are more of a reflection of your own relationship with prayer and it's multiple forms. My own relationship with prayer started early and was reinforced by my family. It also took numerous forms. And I am sure that it influences my opinion of divine intercession.

While talking with my husband, we both feel that no one should have to feel obligated to pray for someone else. I cannot recall a situation where my now agnostic husband, has felt pressured into pledging to pray for another person (although I do subject him to both the occasional mass and theologic queries).

And while I understanding that praying in liew of social action may seem like taking the easy path, that is not always the case. Some people who pray for others help indirectly. (Such as time and money donations to charity - that would make those in need be proactive in helping themselves). For others, prayer is the most effective way for them to be of aid. However, for many praying is the "easy way" to help. But I think that instead being made to feel that prayers are insufficient or complacent, focus should be placed on a call to true service. Even better let's do both!

Aside: I have yet to meet someone who feels that their parish should have prayed less and been more active in aiding them. However, I grew up in an area where not only did your parish pray & care for you, so did your neighbors parish. However, I grew up in a very Catholic family, in a very Catholic neighborhood. I am very aware that people feel spurned by their places of worship. But I also wonder if these same people are expecting their communities to give all the support and effort without offering anything in return.
-Betsy Malloy

Aric Clark said...

@ Betsy

There's no need to wonder. The entire post is in first person. This is my experience, which I presume some people will relate to, but we've already established that it is dissimilar to yours and I affirm that.

For clarity's sake nowhere have I suggested in this post or in the comments that anyone should pray less. I very specifically make the distinction between praying and pledging to pray. In my pastoral experience there are many people, certainly not the majority, but a significant number of people who feel that a pledge of prayer is unwelcome. Their experience and reasons are their own, but it often has to do with an experience of christians who are happy to say nice things, but reticent to do much concretely helpful.

I sincerely hope this has not been your experience and I am not accusing anyone of having behaved this way. I am merely trying to bring to light an aspect of my experience which I know some others share.

Jodie said...

What blows my socks off is when someone says to me, "Can I pray for you?" and I say "Yes" (never turn down someone's offer to pray for you) and then they put their hand on my shoulder and start praying.

For me.

Right there. In the drive way. Or in the hallway.

And a doorway opens and a common passing moment becomes an eternal experience in the presence of God.

It blows my socks off.

Robin said...

I wandered over here from the Presby bloggers, and am very much enjoying this post and comments.

I had never experienced an environment in which people chirped an "I'll pray for you!" at the drop of the hat until I came to seminary. I've always wondered what it meant. It has not usually, for instance, seemed to mean that the speaker is interested in hearing anything about my experience or struggle with God, or has any plans to befriend me. It usually feels as if someone is offering me a little package, all wrapped up and tied with a bow -- a brief, one-time gift that enables them to feel that a (genuinely kind and presumably God-oriented) impulse has been satisfied.

Sometime ago (and if I could find it I would provide a link, but a summary will have to suffice), someone wrote me an awesome note in which he said he was praying with me and for me. WITH me. A desire to align himself with both God and me in relationship, rather than a plan to say something (and who knows what it might have been?) on my behalf.

So "with" is what I usually say now. If I say anything at all.

My guess is that the less people talk about it, the more they are actually in prayer -- whether for us, with us, or simply in our general vicinity.

On the other hand (and of course, there are always other hands), there are a lot of people praying with and for me this week and I can tell that they are actually engaged in prayer well beyond the Hallmark card variety.

It's a mysterious business, this engagement with God.