Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
September 28th, 2011

Not My Will But Thine… But I Do Have This One Request

Reconciling prayers of petition with the idea of God's Will

 
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notmywill-flash

When we speak to God are we affecting His plans? Are we influencing the future? And if not, why do we persist in asking God to listen to our wishes? The most thoughtful people I know can’t help wondering.

Jesus taught his disciples to ask in prayer for specific blessings: for our daily bread; to forgive our transgressions; to help us in some way against temptation; and to deliver us from evil. But it feels less appropriate to turn our prayers into a wish list of our own desires, or a memo to God on improving his management style. Asking God to bring about something specific for me — a new job, acceptance to a school, approval for a mortgage – seems downright cheesy.

Even asking for good things to happen for other people still has that faint whiff of greed, as if we’re treating God as a cosmic dispenser of goodies and if we deposit enough pennies of prayer eventually we’ll get the toy ring along with our gum ball.

C.S. Lewis’s literary demon Screwtape has something insightful to say, as he often does. He tells his nephew that humans rarely pray for the thing God wants them to pray for: just enough grace to see them through this moment, through this time of trouble.

Instead, we conjure up a vision of the future we want and appeal for that outcome. We persist in wrapping our anxious hands around life’s steering wheel as if it’s going to work this time if only we clutch it more tightly. The most difficult prayer for us to voice is, “Not my will, but Thine, be done.”

Conversations with God leapfrogged over my intellectual resolve not to “ask for stuff” and landed squarely on bargaining and pleading. Make me sick, not her. It isn’t fair.

I know this, at least on an intellectual level.

I’ve consciously tried, in the face of both everyday and unusual difficulties, to pray for the strength and patience to deal with my troubles rather than asking God to whisk the troubles away. You might even say I’ve prided myself on knowing the difference. (And I do mean “prided.”)

My intentions came crashing down

Nevertheless, my intention to keep my prayers from becoming a blatant list of wishes came crashing down the week that my 5-year-old niece Isabel was hospitalized with a very high fever that wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t go across the country to be with her family in person. I don’t have any medical knowledge that would have been helpful. So my intense desire to somehow make things better was channeled into prayer.

You will not be shocked to hear that my conversations with God leapfrogged over my intellectual resolve not to “ask for stuff” and landed squarely on bargaining and pleading. Make me sick, not her. It isn’t fair to make a little girl suffer. This can’t be the plan of a loving God, can it?

I knew this was not my A game, spiritually, but I couldn’t help it; I was consumed as fear and love wrestled each other to the mat. The best I could do was a compromise between my intellectual intention and the howl of protest in my gut: I prayed that her doctors and nurses would treat her kindly and with great skill, and that her parents could be blessed with a few hours of peaceful sleep once in a while.

Struggling to shape my prayers according to the theme, “Not my will but Thine,” while feeling helpless and scared in the face of sickness helped me to understand that all people share a frailty in the face of an unknown future and God’s unknown designs.

Was that prayer any less of a wish-list item? I wasn’t chanting, “make her well,” as a magical incantation but I was asking God to make sure Isabel had the best care possible.

I don’t know if God viewed those prayers as less egocentric than the ones wishing the little girl would be okay. I do know that ever since then, when an acquaintance mentions that he has a family member in the hospital, I feel a deeper empathy as I say, “I’m sorry, that must be very scary for you.”

I don’t know whether or not my prayers for my niece aided her recovery. I do know that struggling to shape my prayers according to the theme, “Not my will but Thine,” while feeling helpless and scared in the face of sickness helped me to understand that all people share a frailty in the face of an unknown future and God’s unknown designs. And perhaps my prayers helped alleviate in a small way the fear and anxiety of other people facing sickness. Even if all my prayer accomplished was to teach me to be more empathetic, that’s not a small thing.

Originally published on September 28, 2011.

 
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The Author : Anne Lindley
Anne Lindley is a public librarian in Connecticut. She writes about spirituality and creativity at annelindleywrites.blogspot.com. Her favorite writer is C.S. Lewis and she feels most at home among the Society of Friends (Quakers).
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Maggie

    This is an interesting article to run across because I had a conversation with my parents about the topic just this week. Their habit in prayer is to be very specific- they know what they want and they ask for it in clearly defined ways. That type of prayer is powerful- when they pray for me, I know I’ve been prayed for. The evidence has shown that God clearly answers that style of prayer, but it still makes me uncomfortable. Even when things are painful,I don’t like the feeling that I might be refusing a blessing by asking for them to change. The closest I’ve felt comfortable getting to it, even when someone I love dearly is in the hospital, is to say to God, “Please, be part of this situation. Please be here.” Partly its that I’m not confident that I actually know what would be best, but I know that if what God has planned happens, that will be best. I’m scared to be more specific because I’m scared of making things worse. (Which ought to make it clear that it’s not any sort of sanctity on my part that makes me favor a more ‘Thy will be done’ pattern of prayer.)
    My uncomfortableness with a more “Please do this specific thing” form of prayer is a mild standing disagreement I have with my family. Their position is that by not being more specific, I’m choosing to be less effective in my prayers for people.

  • Greg

    I really struggle with an intelligent response. Perhaps i’am just simple and selfish but i can’t help but take big and small issues to the Lord. The older i become,the more dependent i become on Him.

  • john collins

    I came across a line written by a friend of mine not long ago :God doesnt promise us we will be safe with God rather He primises to suffer with us”.(witness Jesus on the Cross) Prayer for me now allows me to say with the psalmist :My God stand s by me all my trust is in Him” It moves me beyond petition/requests to companionship/care/friendship. Prayer heals me

  • Josephine

    Jesus said: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)

  • mar2390

    @Bama, I am praying for you. I’ve struggled with this idea myself. It’s natural to beg for relief, and God wants us to do this. He is our Father and his love carries us through the pain, even when we can’t feel it. I heard once that pain does not come from God, but he allows it and uses it to bring about something greater in us. Keep on keeping on.

  • Perla

    I think it is important to keep in mind that illness is often if not always a spiritual event. It is not easy, it is a cross for all involved, a cross through which we can become sour or stronger. We do not know God’s will, but we can assume that God wants the best for us since God is Love. I believe that in the act of asking in prayer, which is an act of conversion, we turn ourselves toward the light of Christ and His healing.

  • Bama

    I was glad to find this article. It’s something I’ve struggled with for years.

    I do believe God has a plan for me, and when I’m troubled I remind myself that if I’m having a tough time there’s a REASON for it; a lesson I need to learn, or just something I need to go through (though, on the whole, I’ve always been a pretty blessed guy). And when the path gets REAL rough my first instinct is to pray for the strength to get through it or for the clarity to understand WHY I’m having a tough patch.

    I’ve been dealing with some pretty serious health issues lately and I’ve been having trouble with the seeming dichotomy of “please help me endure this” and “please help me find a way OUT”. On the one hand, I know this is part of The Plan, on the other I’m begging to be relieved. It hurts my brain wondering how I can ask for deliverance while knowing this is something I’m SUPPOSED to be dealing with, and asking to get out of it early is pointless at best and possibly even unfaithful.

    Any insights would be greatly appreciated.

  • Kat

    I try to give Him my laundry list anyway, but with the sometime difficult closer “but in all,thy will be done.” We have petitions in the Our Father and in all the masses, so surely they must have some purpose. I try not to make them too self serving, though, because there is that tension that the author describes. I agree with John.

  • Marge Hill

    John Reid Perkins-Buzo: Excellent! “…in a real concrete way God attends to our heartfelt prayers gathering them to the divine will.”
    Beautiful! “…but that in a mysterious way, through the life of the Spirit in us through the Sacraments, God’s will and our prayers converge in a life of holiness.”

  • Jason

    Andria: It’s my personal feeling (and speculation) that both you and Ms Lindley are right in some senses. I have often thought about the point the author raises, but when I look at the prayers Jesus made, they were always prayers directed at God, for direction toward God; aka “thine will be done”. Ultimately, maybe some of those feelings that you are speaking of come from a longing for closeness with our God, and therefore prayer is absolutely appropriate; it’s a conversation that no one else can hear or know. Be blessed!

  • John Reid Perkins-Buzo

    Well, C.S. Lewis, as usual gets most of it right. But also, as usual, he overlooks an important aspect of traditional prayer. Luke 18:1-8 gives us Jesus “Parable of the Unjust Judge”, the point of which is to ask for justice before God and rely on God to be just in answering our prayer. Of course in one way it is “thy will be done”, but in a real concrete way God attends to our heartfelt prayers gathering them to the divine will, not simply ruling that our prayers don’t count since they fall outside of God’s will. This important parable demonstrates the need to pray and never give up. But not because we will bend God to our will, nor that God will simply over-rule our deviant prayers, but that in a mysterious way, through the life of the Spirit in us through the Sacraments, God’s will and our prayers converge in a life of holiness.

  • John Reid Perkins-Buzo

    Well, C.S. Lewis, as usual gets most of it right. But also, as usual, he overlooks an important aspect of traditional prayer. Luke 18:1-8 gives us Jesus “Parable of the Unjust Judge”, the point of which is to ask for justice before God and rely on God to be just in answering our prayer. Of course in one way it is “thy will be done”, but in a real concrete way God attends to our heartfelt prayers gathering them to the divine will, not simply ruling that our prayers don’t count since they fall outside of God’s will. This important parable demonstrates the need to pray and never give up. But not because we will bend God to our will, nor that God will simply over-rule our deviant prayers, but that in a mysterious way, through the life of the Spirit in us through the Sacrament

  • Marge Hill

    I talk to God because I know him as a person and want to communicate with him. Whenever I ask him a question, he always pays attention and answers. However, sometimes I am not so polite.. he asks me something and I don’t give my attention! Or in the middle of the conversation I get distracted! That’s just plain rude.

  • Christine Coniglio

    yes, we are affecting His plans, he knows what we are going tp pray for before we do ; ) It is nice to know we have free will, it is nice to know God knows us better than we know ourselves, I personaaly have no clue how many hairs are on my head!

  • Madelyn Cousin Magruder

    Because He wants to KNOW us.

  • Andria

    I can’t wrap my brain around this one. God is the one place we can be wholly ourselves and still get unconditional love. If my heart cries out to be heard for change, then I’m praying for it – long and hard!!! And is it not striking as well that if you keep feeling yourself pulled in the direction of praying for yourself and others, that this gut feeling is perhaps the right one?! Couldn’t those gut feelings also be God tapping you on the shoulder so that you will ask?

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