The Liberating Practice of Prayer
COMMENTARY: Prayer can make us far more sensitive to the real needs of others, if we turn to it regularly.
I love praying for people. It’s truly one of the nicest parts of Christian life. At the same time, I’ve realized that praying for others can occasionally become an obstacle to my own spiritual growth. That might sound strange, so let me explain.
I am not concerned that prayer will lull me into laziness. This concern arises sometimes in moments of national crisis, following a mass shooting or natural disaster. Unbelievers urge us, “Don’t pray!” worrying that Christians will settle for tossing up a quick prayer to the Almighty, instead of writing their congressmen or giving money to the Red Cross. This worry is deeply confused, but it’s also revealing. In reality, people are far likelier to shy away from productive action because they’ve been paralyzed by fear, callousness or despair. Trust in a loving God tends to make us feel that it is worthwhile to try to help, even when our own skills and resources seem grossly inadequate to the task. Still, it’s understandable that unbelievers would sometimes see prayer as the enemy. For them, the pain of unrelieved sympathy is often the best available spur to action, so anything that eases that angst may look like a kind of spiritual morphine.
The real truth is that prayer can make us far more sensitive to the real needs of others, if we turn to it regularly. The easiest people to pray for, of course, are suffering friends and sympathetic strangers. But if we allow ourselves to think about it, we really are constantly in proximity to other needy humans, often with a limited ability to offer practical help. Offering quick prayers for all of these people as we happen to see them can be a good way to keep ourselves attuned to the neediness of others.
Just as one example, I like being able to pray for people I happen to see in public places who arouse my sympathy: the old man or very pregnant woman who look haggard and beaten down; the child on the playground who can’t persuade anyone to play with him; the store clerk or flight attendant who is just obviously having a terrible day. Often, we can’t concretely assist these people without being inappropriately intrusive. That helplessness causes us angst sometimes, and we can spare ourselves that feeling just by developing a kind of “tunnel vision” and learning not to notice.
Prayer gives us a better option, though. There’s no need for it to be intrusive; people don’t have to know that you just said a quick prayer for them. Don’t stare; just pray. The sensitivity this practice gives you may help you to be more aware of people’s real needs on those occasions when you are in a good position to assist.
It’s also nice to have prayer as a substitute for apologies or thank-yous, in case we’re prevented somehow from offering them. For me, prayer is a good stand-in for an apology when I’m in traffic and suddenly realize that I’ve inconvenienced another driver by mistake. I feel bad, but I can’t just jump out of the car to go offer my regrets. So I say a quick Ave for the other driver, because who couldn’t use a few extra prayers? Maybe they are lonely atheists who don’t have a single soul in their lives who regularly pray for them. Maybe the person just got terrible news about his or her health or job. Who knows? I do the same thing when a kind neighbor takes the trouble to return a lost ball or a child’s jacket just by leaving it on the front porch. I’m not sure who did it, but God knows, so I can say a quick prayer and trust him to “deliver” it to the appropriate person. When one of my sons comes home glowing because another child was nice to him at school, that’s another good opportunity. I won’t embarrass the kids by smothering them in gushy mom emotions, but moms do keenly appreciate those moments.
Praying for “enemies” is a bit harder, but the psychological benefits are, if anything, even greater. I don’t have any enemies of the Michael Corleone variety, but most all of us have people who irritate, anger or wound us.
Praying for those people can be liberating because it almost always helps at least a little to ease aggrieved emotions, which very possibly hurt us more than the other person.
Given the wonderful benefits of praying for others, why would it ever be a problem? It’s actually fairly simple. There are so many other people out there needing prayers that it’s easy to use them as an excuse for avoiding the hardest thing of all: praying for myself.
This seems very counterintuitive. Unbelievers tend to suppose that our prayer lives are primarily a vanity project, just a means of lobbying God for extra favors. They see people on their knees and imagine a running personal monologue of grievances and personal petitions, or perhaps picking out the color scheme for the welcome party we’re anticipating in heaven. In fact, I find that cheerleading other people’s progress toward redemption is considerably more appealing than talking to God about my own life.
Potentially, that is because I have sins or vicious tendencies that I don’t particularly wish to address. But it actually goes much deeper than that. Praying for other people is an exercise both in trusting God and in reveling in benevolent wishes for others. That’s generally pleasant. Praying for myself is more of a foretaste of Judgment Day. Am I really on the road to salvation? Does God want my earthly projects to succeed? It’s easy to ask Jesus to take the wheel of other people’s lives. With my own, I’m a bit more anxious to know where we’re actually headed.
Evangelical Protestants talk a lot about their “personal relationship with Jesus.” I’m always curious: Does that really help, or is it mostly affectation? I find that alone time with Jesus is one of the hardest parts of Christian living. You want to talk about me, Lord? Actually, I have a friend who’s going through a tough time right now; shall we talk about her instead?
I’m not going to stop praying for other people. Prayer is a wonderful gift, and I also happen to believe that it can work. Periodically, though, we should be sure to schedule some “me time” with God. It’s awkward to admit it, but I need my own prayers, too.
Rachel Lu, a moral philosopher, wife, and mother of four, writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.