Stuff I Don't Pray About

Tonight is one of my favorite nights of the year as the Department Chair of ACU's Department of Psychology (I know, hard to believe but I'm actually in charge of stuff. In fact, I'm still wrapping my head around the fact that I have a business card. They gave me a box of them awhile back, but I just use them as bookmarks.)

Tonight is the night when we take our graduating seniors and graduate students out to Perini Ranch for a celebratory dinner. For a graduation gift we give the seniors a copy of Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning (probably the #1 must read in psychology) signed by the faculty. It's special night.

But I was nervous all day because we were eating outside and the forecast was calling for rain. I called my administrative coordinator to check with Perini's about what we might do if it did rain. Nothing much, it turned about. So my admin coordinator signed off her email with "I guess we'll just have to pray that the weather holds off."

Normally, I'd have just read that line and moved on. But today my mind lingered on that sentiment, "I guess we'll just have to pray..."

Two thoughts went through my head. The first was that I wondered if my admin coordinator really meant for me to pray. Most likely she didn't. References to prayer, here in the Bible Belt of America, are very common. Almost idiomatic. That is, the statement "I guess we'll just have to pray" is generally the equivalent of "let's just hope" or "let's keep our fingers crossed." And I wondered if that is a good thing, about how in many Christian communities the reference to "prayer" is just a Christianized version of "keep your fingers crossed."

The other thought that went through my head is that when I read the words "I guess we'll just have to pray that the weather holds off" I knew, immediately, that I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't pray for the weather to hold off. Why? Because I don't pray for things like that.

And it struck me that I'm likely not alone in this. I expect that many of us have private and distinctive lists of stuff we don't pray about. I, for example, won't pray for the weather to change to save my Departmental dinner. It'll rain or it won't. But I'm not getting God involved. And I'm sure you have a list of stuff that you don't pray about.

Now a lot of the reasons why we might not pray for stuff is because we don't have faith. We don't think anyone's listening. We don't think prayer will make any difference.

But I also think, and this was the case today with the rain issues, that sometimes we don't pray about stuff because we don't think prayer should be used in that manner. That the request might be inappropriate, too trivial or too self-interested.

The point is, I have a list of stuff I don't pray about. Sometimes because I don't have faith, but oftentimes because I have this sense that a particular prayer is inappropriate. But I've never pondered, in any critical way, how those lists got made in the first place or if the lists are theologically coherent. The lists just seemed to have evolved. I know I have a list but am only vaguely aware about how it got made.

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16 thoughts on “Stuff I Don't Pray About”

  1. Interesting. I went to Hillsong church once and I remember feeling very uncomfortable with the prayers because they seemed to me borderline mercenary. I know Jesus said "Ask and you shall receive", but praying for material goods just doesn't seem right to me. When I pray over something I want - even something quite big and important, like when I was unemployed and looking for work - I tend to pray rather for the grace and strength to make the best of whatever happens. That's the major theme of my prayers; I guess in my heart I'm an intractable determinist! :P

    The other day my mother asked me, "How do I balance 'ask and you shall receive' with 'it is not for you to know times and seasons'? What if my prayer is just nagging God?"

    I said, "You think he hasn't
    had thousands of years of nagging from Jewish mothers before you?"

  2. There's a lot of duality from the pulpits (and not just on this topic), from "God cares about every detail, and you can/should bring EVERYTHIING to Him," to "God doesn't care one whit about THAT. You need to grow up."

  3. One of the things that keeps me from praying for things like "don't let it rain..." is that rain is often a good thing (except if you are in the Mississippi River valley). If I were in a drought-stricken area (like parts of Texas now) I would have a hard time praying for the rain to hold off. I know God can sort through all the prayers for and against rain and come to his/her own conclusions, but for some reason it just seems presumptuous to even try.

    On a more serious note, there have been armed conflicts throughout history (American Civil War, Northern Ireland, etc.) where no doubt Christians on both sides were praying for victory. Do the prayers cancel out so that the side that prays the most wins? It seems that the best we can pray for is for peace and safety. Likewise, on a more mundane level, when we prayer before a sporting event, we should pray for safety and good sportsmanship rather than victory.

    Perhaps this is what is meant by praying "in Jesus' name" or praying "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

  4. Interesting post. I would say most of my life I have prayed about everything. I had such a firm belief that our prayers, when prayed in alignment with God's will, would be heard and answered.

    But three years ago we had a son born with a fatal heart defect.

    We prayed for him desperately. People who had never prayed before prayed for him. Everyone prayed for healing for this little boy. Because what could be closer to God's heart than healing a baby? But He did not. And it paralyzed my prayer life.

    Because how do you pray for something, whether it is the discomfort of rain or the urgent needs of a sick friend when the mind of God is so unknowable? So my list of things that I don't pray for has become quite extensive. And I'm sure that is to my detriment. Whether from some sort of uncertainty of God's answer or fear of divine rejection, I don't know. But the list is sadly long.

    And I have to exercise a great amount of restraint when people flippantly toss off quips about praying for things. Because prayer isn't simple or effortless or painless. Petitioning the God of the universe is a weighty thing. And I know He tells us to pray, but still, it is hard.

  5. "But I've never pondered, in any critical way, how those lists got made in the first place or if the lists are theologically coherent." This is a very interesting question. I, too, have a list and have wondered if it is theologically coherent. I tend to try to avoid selfishness, which a lot of these prayers sound like. I rather pray for courage and wisdom and prudence and charity.

  6. >
    "The lists just seemed to have evolved."

    p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

    Possibly since the question of 'what is prayer?' had not been answered first. And, Paul (or was it God?) seems to have thought that we should never cease from it. Well, if it is continual, then it probably isn't about lists. Nor is it likely that God needs us to keep His TODO list current. Truly, our misunderstanding of prayer keeps the Church weak.

  7. I struggle with lots of the same questions about prayer. When I read Facebook posts, it seems the assumption is that if we can get enough friends praying about some need or desire that God will have to grant the request.

    C. S. Lewis' essay on Petitionary Prayer has been helpful to me. Like many of his essays, it doesn't provide answers so much as raise some good questions. He points out some of the glaring inconsistencies in standard views of how God does or does not answer prayers.

  8. I prayed about rain once.

    I was working at a Christian summer camp once and we had the kids out on a weeklong canoe/bike trip off site, anyway, it was morning and raining and my turn to make breakfast (soggy pancakes on a coleman stove) we also had a long canoe trip ahead of us to our next camp and we couldn't get on the river until the skies were clear and free of thunder.

    The point is I prayed for the rain to stop. I needed it to, for the kids to have a good time and so that I'd have a good object lesson on prayer that evening.

    After I prayed I could still hear rain falling on my tent, so I put on my raincoat. That's when the rain stopped. God likes to give his kids good gifts, he likes to teach them things too...

    OH, that object lesson I had for that evening? It was on humility.

  9. I think Anne Lamott said that the two best prayers are "Help me, help me, help me" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

    I'm like many other posters who've said that I tend to pray more for courage and strength rather than for particular needs or outcomes.

  10. *whew* Problem solved. *wiping brow*

    For a minute there, qb thought you might give this one a pass and thereby tacitly acknowledge the dignity of those who have struggled mightily in prayer for deeply consequential things, only to have their James-formed hopes and confidences dashed against the rocks of bitter reality.qb

  11. I realize this wasn't the point of the blog, but that Perini's dinner was one of my favorite nights last year as well. I read Frankl's book almost immediately after graduation, and can't wait for a little down time so I can read it again! Thanks for everything you do for the department and the students, Dr. Beck. It still means so much to me!

  12. I remember getting to the airport once with an old car. It was raining and after winding down the window to get the car park ticket, it wouldn’t go up more than half way. I sat and prayed, increasingly desperately, over the window while pressing the button. After a whirring sound the window exploded – glass everywhere. Only then did I engage my brain and work out how to deal with the problem. That experience left me with acute embarrassment and a long list of things that I no longer pray about. We often pray for things that we are perfectly capable of sorting out ourselves – prayer is just the lazy solution.
    I’ve thought a bit more widely about prayer since then and why it does or doesn’t get answered. I don’t have a necessarily good theology on this, but I can’t help but think there has to be a random element. Otherwise, if they always got answered we would use prayer as magic trick. And if we qualified it and said, only if they fall in this category, it doesn’t really solve the magic problem and introduces huge boundary issues (why isn’t that one over the line). The alternative – God answers prayers from good people as opposed to the rest of us mediocre Christians has its own set of hideous implications that I don’t need to explore. I have this idea that God would really like to answer our prayers but forces himself to use his random number table to save us from ourselves.
    So I agree with the best prayers being "help me, help me, help me" and "thank you, thank you, thank you", but I think we need to be careful with the “help me” ones and not use them as an excuse for not doing some problem solving ourselves.

  13. Now qb has me concerned. I didn't set out to solve any problem with this comment and yet qb thinks one has been solved! Is qb misunderstanding?

    qb is right though. If I (not one of the other commenters here) am ignorant about the meaning / purpose of prayer and do something which I think is praying hard for a 'deeply consequential matter' and then loose confidence in prayer because things didn't turn out to my satisfaction then my dignity should be honored. And, I should just be left in my ignorance. Great! Thank you qb.

  14. Mostly I find that whatever I pray about, the "answer" is that I need to change my attitude about what is, not to have it miraculously changed If there is someone difficult in my life, I start out praying for that person to change, but end up concluding I'm supposed to love him or her anyway.

    As for lists, I limit prayer to needs, not wants. And, no fair assuming that there is some higher purpose in allowing what I want, as in "Let me be successful above others in this endeavor so I can be a good witness."

    I see prayer as more of a method of self examination than a wish list

  15. > But I've never pondered, in any critical way, how those lists got made
    in the first place or if the lists are theologically coherent.

    I am extremely tempted to make a long post here listing basic beliefs about God and the coherent positions on petitionary prayer determined by those beliefs, but I will restrain myself and just say: Yes, I think that's a good thing to ponder critically and systematically.

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