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.”
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.
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.