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The purpose of prayer is not to get what I want

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By Lace Williams-Tinajero

Every night I tuck my son into bed. I anoint his head with oil from a tiny bottle — the same oil of frankincense and myrrh given by some church leaders to my son before his brain and skull surgery a few years ago. I make a cross on his small forehead and recite a well-known benediction:

“My dear son, may the Lord bless you and keep you,

make his face shine on you and be gracious unto you.

The Lord look upon you with favor,

and grant you his healing, protection and peace.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Now and forever.

Amen.”

This nightly ritual raises for me a conundrum. On the one hand, I feel compelled to stay with it in hopes that it makes a difference. At the same time, I can never know what effect, if any, it may have on my son’s circumstances.

It is widely believed that prayer is a powerful tool for making a difference in the world. But is the purpose of prayer to motivate God to change how things are? Does prayer really move God to end suffering, poverty, injustice, abuse, war, and illness?

Aside from the benediction I say each night over my son, I no longer pray for his healing. I no longer pray this way because it is ridiculous to do so. For in doing so, I resort to using prayer and God to shield myself from the reality of life’s sufferings. Praying for my son’s healing denies the cross that I am called to pick up.

Praying for God to take away hardships denies the cross of suffering that Jesus Christ took up for the brokenness and sins of the world. It puts a damper on encountering God as love.

I have shared the following story in a previous post, but it is worth sharing again because it drives home my point. One time I took my son to his therapy session. Another little boy was in the waiting area. This boy could not speak. He communicated by shrieking and screaming as if his ‘normal’ self lay trapped in a cave. I started to pray that God would give him the ability to speak, for I felt uncomfortable and sad for the boy.

As I prayed this way, a question arose for me: what if this boy never learns to use words to express himself? In that moment, I became lost over how to pray. So I asked God to show me how me sees the boy. God answered but not in the way I expected. Despite the boy’s inability to speak, God still sees the boy’s life as sacred and with a purpose.

I no longer take comfort in the idea that God has the power to heal if it is God’s will. Instead, I engage in prayer to commune with God by being honest and vulnerable, which is the key to praying this obscure way.

For instance, when I find myself praying for a loved one’s safety or healing, I force myself to reflect on what is behind my need to pray in this magical way — that underlying my compulsion to pray for God to protect, heal or comfort is my fear of losing that loved one. When I slip into praying out of desperation for something to change or for something not to happen, I try to go deeper with God by acknowledging my need for control.

Too often prayer can take the form of denial of what is going on in the world and in life’s circumstances. When I commune with God in prayer as opposed to making requests, I encounter God as love. God answers with the promise never to leave or forsake.

I will continue my ritual of anointing my son’s head with oil and praying over him at bedtime, uncertain of whether it will make any difference in his uncertain prognosis. And as I lay awake across the hall, I will continue my other ritual of pouring out my heart and letting God’s love touch my deepest fear, that of losing my son.

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14 comments

  1. Very deep post, laden with so much that is so determinative. I guess, if I had people share how God did heal, would that discredit what you have said about prayer? This post saddens me because I am sure it’s born out of deep pain and joy but it casts a blanket of judgment over others and in my opinion neglects the teaching of clear scripture. I can understand your struggles as you have presented them but absolutely disagree so much with your conclusions about healing, the bible and prayer. I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing your thoughts and feelings but hope others won’t be discouraged from praying and believing for good answers and changes.

    • I have to admit your responses made me so angry, for we have had to deal with such bad theology throughout Tito’s life. I went into prayer about it and God gave me two answers of forgiving you and asking you to repent and a verse to remember. Did you read the post? My wife as I do pray for out son everyday. EVERYDAY. For you to call our prayers unbiblical is certainly an act of Job’s friends. (that is in the bible, right) We pray like Job did, like Paul did for his thorn as Jesus did to have his cup removed. And we end as they did, with faith of Thy will be done. (that is in the bible, right?) And we continue to pray. You offered up Job’s friends defenses for God, saying her prayer was judgmental, even though she said nothing about others people’s healing or not, but shared her prayer with her God. Our God remains the Holy Trinity whether God does or does’t do with our son. That is faith. We love our God and our son and stay in prayer always. If you thing that s unbiblical, then either you read too shallowly her post or Bible or both. The last thing God gave me, so I am done with this conversation is Proverbs 26.4 Respond all you want, but my advice is go to Father, Son and Holy Spirit and ask yourself the really hard question of what is the fruit of you words above. That was Paul standard of judging and none of nine fruits are present in your words. Kingdom of God is at hand.

      • Maybe such a post was a bit too close to the nerve to engage publicly. Sorry my response caused so much turmoil. I purposefully sought to respond with care and concern. I know you love your family and I admire all you both do for him and our community through what you do and write. I have no desire to hurt you or engage in a debate. I shared my thoughts on your post. I stand by my comments, they were never said in anything less than love. If you don’t want a contrary opinion, this isn’t the format to lay out a controversial piece wrapped in a deep and painful story. All I advocated for was making room for more possibilities in prayer.

        • I do agree with you on the issue of a lot of really bad theology out there for and against. There’s also a lot of bad ways people have handled good theology too. I’ve done it, I’m sure you’d say you’ve handled good things in bad ways too. We all wrestle with our personal lives and the bible and work hard to make sense out of the places where both don’t always line up. It’s tough but places like this, revolving around vulnerable posts like these, can be catalysts for good hard thinking, searching and praying. I will do that in response to your admonishments and trust that God speaks clearly through his word to lead me to always handle the word of God most accurately.

  2. Thanks for engaging my piece. I’ve wrestled with the purpose of prayer for awhile now, but tend to keep my thoughts to myself. This has lead me to a lonely place where only God knows what I’m truly feeling and thinking.

    Eric, I don’t quite understand your feelings of sadness over my article. If you care to elaborate, I’d be interested in hearing more. I’m going to stay out of the interaction between you and my husband. I feel compelled to respond
    generally to clarify my position.

    We Christians must ask ourselves the difficult question of whether we have succumbed to a mindless way of praying, because I think we have. It’s time to take a stand for more honest prayer. This is not to negate the biblical stories of Jesus healing the blind, lame, and hemorrhaging. But it is easy to elevate these stories because we want to make them our own. We want to be cured. We want to see and walk again. We want, we want, we want. We ‘want’ so desperately that we turn these stories of Jesus healing people into formulas for getting Jesus to show up in our lives in the way we want. But as the musical band Iona sings, “Catch the bird of heaven. Lock him in a cage of gold. Look again tomorrow, and he will be gone.”

    More often than not I worry that Christians sell out to the prosperity gospel, as evident by engaging Jesus at the level of wants and desires. It’s time that Christians start holding together in tension the healings Jesus performed and the cross he bore.

  3. I totally understand. For medical reasons I have had my left leg amputated. The results were worth it initially. But now the underlying Lymphedema has cost me basically my way of life & participation in life as it is. It would be insanity for me to pray for God to heal me so I could walk again. He’s not going to regrow my leg. Often I’ve prayed He’d heal the Lymphedema. His reply to my, “Why me” hit like lightening. My perspective is WHY NOT ME? My relationship with God doesn’t shield me from bad things, including serious diseases. My response to this suffering has to be I will follow Him REGARDLESS. So my prayer is, “Not my will but Your’s Lord, not my will but Your’s. Give me the strength to accept Your will and pray not for my own.” I don’t discount what miracles God can do. But He doesn’t choose that for everybody.

  4. Thank you for this. It is beautiful and wise.

  5. I consider myself a Buddhist Christian; Christian first, Buddhist second. Christianity emphasizes relationship with Father; God; Creator. Buddhism emphasizes relationship with self. The practice of Christianity emphasizes prayer while the practice of Buddhism (specifically Zen) emphasizes the practice of meditation. A thread that travels between the two teachings is emphasis upon alleviating suffering. While each path approaches this idea from different directions, the goals of prayer and meditation are often found quite similar when words of Christ and Buddha are compared.

    Many have heard stories of children inflicted by terminal illness who smile through physical pain, speaking calm reassurance to grown adults. Many such stories have been told wherein the child speaks of the peace and comfort of being with God and Jesus Christ. In Zen Buddhism it is taught that suffering is not the experience of pain, but rather, the mind’s inability to relate to the physical or emotional pain. Why does this ability come more readily for some than others? Science is beginning to ask this very question. When someone is faced with trying circumstances, yet at peace, free from emotional fear
    and mental anguish, this state might be described as God’s Grace.

    It is this I pray for others most.

    Thank you so much for sharing, Lace.

  6. Great post Lace! I can see from the discussion that this is an important topic.

  7. What a lovely reflection, Lace, thank you. When my friend and mentor, Chris, was dying this past summer, I prayed for him – and I prayed for his healing. And, as I did so, I tried to keep room in my heart for the unwelcome reality that healing for Chris would almost assuredly look different than a cure.

    I think Chris did find healing. As he was visited in hospice during his final weeks by one beloved friend after another, he remarked that he had been granted the uncommon privilege of attending his own funeral, the uncommon privilege of being there in the room and being alive as we talked about how much we loved him and what a difference he had made to us.

    Sometimes healing doesn’t look like getting healthy or getting normal or getting cured. And that sucks. That’s not fair. But I am convinced that healing seeps in through the cracks anyway, that God finds a way to answer our prayers, even if God’s answer doesn’t always look the way that we want it to.

    It sounds like you are seeing a glimpse of healing as you anoint your son at the day’s end. I hope – and I will pray – that there will be more healing for you and your family to come.

  8. What gracious responses, from which I have gleaned much. Thank you all for engaging my post at a deep level and connecting with me by sharing your insights. I feel truly blessed.

  9. Lace, your vulnerability is profound. Thank you for sharing this.
    I think that we are welcomed by God to ask for what we want. “Ask, seek, knock,” yes? I also think that as we travel the road of faith, what we ask for changes as we move down the road. What I hear you saying in your article is that as you have spent time in this situation, your prayers have changed. I think this is natural and good. All prayers are good. When we seek the heart of God, how could it be bad? Blessings on you and your family as you continue down your road. Peace.

  10. Lace, this is a beautiful post. I love the idea of communing with God in prayer as opposed to making requests, though I admit, that’s something I struggle with – I tend to do a lot of praying, as you said, for something to change or something to not happen (or happen, as the case may be.) But I believe ultimately the purpose of prayer is to bring our will into line with God’s will. Very challenging! Thank you for posting.

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