Praying By Giving Up on Prayer

prayer at night from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 mrehan, Flickr | CC-BY-SA
I've long struggled with traditional understandings of prayer.

Especially in terms of the things or people we "pray for." All you have to do is listen carefully and then think through the implications, and you may see my problem.

Most of our talk about "the power of prayer" actually places a lot of the power in our hands: If enough people pray hard enough, God will act. Intervention requires action on our part; if we fail to act, a disaster may occur unabated.

Think about it. Some of us hear it all the time. So and so was sick, needed a job, etc. They amassed a huge network of pray-ers and, if and when things work out favorably, we say that "God answers prayer" or "prayer works."

I've never understood this. To me, the implication is that God sits, hands folded, waiting for enough people to pray, and if we finally manage to get God's attention, God will act.

We wouldn't say it that way, but that's what the language implies to me. It makes me think of flipping a car over. If enough people get on the right side and coordinate their efforts, it can be done.

Many churches, especially internationally, have prayer services for healing. People have been miraculously healed because they...were with the right people at the right place and the right time? Maybe it happens. I'm not really in a place to deny their experience. I can't explain it, which I guess is the point of miracles. But personally, I just can't get on board. I hate to say it, because I don't want to be mean, but it honestly strikes me as Christian voodoo.

I once had someone tell me that she worried she and her friends had once "prayed for the wrong thing." There was a crisis, they all prayed fervently for a certain outcome, and their desired outcome came about. But now they question it all. "Did we pray for the wrong thing?"

That one really twisted my brain into knots. So what you're telling me is that God is willing to do the wrong thing or answer a prayer in a way that goes against God's will if enough people are praying for it?

If my above critique is not connecting with you, don't worry about it. If you see no problem with traditional understandings of prayer, and if they bring you hope, I actually have no interest in stripping you of it. But this is a post for me and others like me. I think some of the traditional understandings of prayer paint a theologically problematic picture of God. If you don't agree, that's fine, and you can proceed in your prayer life with my blessing. But I personally need something else.

At the very least, our theology of prayer must return the power and initiative to its rightful place.

In 1960, Catherine Marshall wrote a piece in Guideposts called "The Prayer of Relinquishment." She basically suggests that we're praying all wrong. She tells stories of people, including herself, frantically praying for something in the midst of a crisis, but then realizing that the way in which they were praying may have actually been hindering things.
One afternoon I read the story of a missionary who had been an invalid for eight years. Constantly she had prayed that God would make her well, so that she might do his work. Finally, worn out with futile petition, she prayed, "All right. I give up. If you want me to be an invalid, that’s your business. Anyway, I want you even more than I want health. You decide." In two weeks the woman was out of bed, completely well.
Understand: I'm always skeptical of these stories, and even if true, they potentially set the rest of us up for disappointment when we don't get the miracle. But beneath all that, Marshall is onto something. The Prayer of Relinquishment is, "I give up. You decide." The old school evangelicals might call this "letting go and letting God." There's genius to this.

As Marshall puts it, "A demanding spirit, with self-will as its rudder, blocks prayer."

In other words, whenever we pray as if the outcome depends on our prayer, we're actually blocking God out.

Part of why the Prayer of Relinquishment is effective is because it relates to our stress response. There's a reason that contemplative authors have spoken of and practiced prayer in a way that involved the body as much as the spirit and mind. Think of being in water. When you're tense, you sink. When you relax, you float. Marshall's key insight is the fact that our prayers may at times be the religious equivalent of clenched fists. We have to "give up" on this kind of prayer to be open to real prayer.

The effect of our stress response on our body and mind is well documented. Physically, our muscles tighten, our digestion slows down and our immune system is compromised. We can literally keep ourselves sick. Emotionally and mentally, we get less sleep, we make rash decisions, and are more irritable. But it's not just us. The stress response has a negative effect on those around us, keeping them tense and more focused on abating the stress than being well.

Perhaps this is a lot of what "letting go and letting God" is all about. God hard-wired us this way. We can actually find great solace and relief when we come to a place of relinquishment. "OK fine, God." Or, perhaps, "I can't control or fix this." We must not see this as synonymous with acceptance or passively saying, "I'm OK with any outcome." What if one's child is deathly ill? What if one has been falsely accused of a crime? We're not talking about acceptance. We're talking about peace. We can't be open to "the peace that passes all understanding" (Philippians 4:7) if we believe the outcome of prayer depends on us. Jesus told the weary to come to him (Matthew 11:28) for rest. Any theology of prayer that is not restful is probably off base.

Certainly, when we're facing a crisis, the prayer of "please, fix this" is natural and understandable. I'm not suggesting that we suppress our "in-the-moment" thoughts and prayers (the biblical authors didn't). But, if it remains long-term, it's a posture that produces adverse affects.

I am not totally on board with Catherine Marshall's article, but it's a step in the right direction. It brings us closer to where I think we need to be with prayer.

I'd like to ask why prayer has to be an activity I engage in rather than a description of how I engage in all activities. Is prayer a thing, or the way in which I do all things? What if I'm supposed to pray through God rather to God?

This is not a new idea. The apostle Paul actually spoke of prayer as something God engages in with us, rather than just being a recipient. "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans...the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).

In a guest post on this blog, Joe Kutter reflected on prayer in terms of "priesthood" and the need that we have, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, for someone to come alongside us. Not necessarily to "pray for us" but to pray with us, voicing our concerns and suffering to God, something that is very powerful. "The priest is the one who represents the neighbor to God and God to the neighbor...When Floyd visited me in that hospital room, he became a priest to me. He spoke my need to God and he was God’s reminder of grace to me."

This is closer to something that makes sense to me. Because, let's face it, even those who claim to believe that God will fix things will still call 911 in an emergency or take their broken down car to a mechanic rather than praying over it.

As a pastor, I've seen some people experience healing and restoration and some people not, and it has never made sense to attribute the outcomes to who was praying how.

But it has been my experience that when people are sick, depressed, stressed, or a host of other things when life is beating them up, they need people to come alongside them, take their hand and say, "Let's approach the throne of God together."

It may be disconcerting not to have certainty about what the outcome will be. But it's downright terrifying to think that I and my friends have to come up with the right prayer.

Luckily, I don't think we do.