When Advised to ‘Pray About It,’ It Can Help To Realize You Have Options.

We all have hard times, ranging from the minor annoyances, slights, and hurts of everyday life to more serious and even desperate crises.

Growing up in the church–as a pastor’s kid, no less–I often heard the words “pray about it” or “I’ll pray for you” batted about rather mindlessly.

There’s a funny meme I saw once that said something along the lines of “when considering ‘what would Jesus do,’ remember that flipping over tables and telling people off is a viable option.”

Screen shot 2013-10-14 at 1.37.49 PM{image via skatteredseeds.com; used under fair-use guidelines of US copyright law}

Now, I am not taking Jesus’ actions in the cleansing of the temple as prescriptive, of course–keeping in mind that Jesus strenuously advocates nonresistance and spends most of his time teaching and healing rather than telling people off–but that silly little meme is a nice push-back against the sometimes-prevalent notion of Jesus as just a really “nice” guy.

I’ve been thinking about the timidity of my own prayers lately, and the fact that I’ll often pray rather feebly, especially when there’s a lot on my mind. Instead of spill my guts to God, it can feel easier just to ignore God altogether, something along the lines of “If you can’t say anything ‘nice’ to God, don’t say anything at all.”

Reflecting on my disinclination to pray, I remembered this excerpt from Margaret Kim Peterson’s wonderful memoir Sing Me To Heaven, in which she recounts one of her professors describing the difference between conventional Protestant prayer and the psalmists’ prayers:

The Protestant prays, “O Lord, we’re not worth much. We have these people we want you to heal. We don’t think you’ll do it. Thy will be done. Amen.” The psalmist prays, “O Lord, remember the deuteronomic law code? It says you will vindicate the righteous. Well, I’m righteous, and I’m a little short in the vindication department. Hello? hello? Is there anybody there?” The psalmist’s prayer certainly seemed the more robustly faithful, but I wasn’t sure I was up for such prayer.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear a lot of lament going on in Christian conversations these days. I don’t hear a lot of wrestling with God over the injustices and horrors of the world. And it seems to me that while more conservative Christians are afraid to argue with the Almighty, more liberal Christians are afraid to ask for God’s just judgment.Without getting into details, let’s just say there are a variety of things on my mind that I want to pray about, but I find I’m not always so sure how, exactly, to pray about them. There are things, for example, that I am not ready to simply be “grateful” for. There are injustices I want to see rectified. There are, as I said, times when I’d rather give God the silent treatment than to pray.But what if the Bible suggests that complaining to God about how things are is actually okay–more than okay, really? I mean, why else do we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven if we aren’t, in fact, pretty sick of how things are going on earth?

Some people make pro/con lists to figure things out. I use stick figures. So here you go. Take from it what you will.

PrayingAnd may God grant you peace, amid whatever storm you might be caught in.

Why you should still bring canned goods to food drives
Long before Bittman, the classic, quietly bestselling cookbook about health, faith, and justice
Is Religion Harmful to Children? A Prominent MD Rethinks Jesus.
Your right to forgo vaccines ends in our shared airspace
About Rachel Marie Stone
  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    It really does suggest to me that us Evangelicals need to rediscover the Psalms as a part of our regular worship. (Maybe everyone else has, but my church world is woefully short on psalms.)

  • amyjuliabecker

    My husband said to me a long time ago that every emotion we have is an invitation to pray. I am far more likely to do something else, but I want to turn it all–the anger, sadness, joy and all the rest– to pray.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Can i offer up a prayer of lament about how lamentable my prayer life can be?

  • Adriana

    Oh my goodness! I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head, Rachel. The visual helps too.

  • dad

    I suspect that many of my parishioners would be horrified to know how intimately familiar I am with the imprecatory psalms…

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      A friend who pastors a local church asked me to fill the pulpit one day. I preached Psalm 137. For some reason they’ve never asked me back.

      • dad

        I can’t imagine why. It reminds me of the Associate Pastor in my last church, who loved to tell everyone that his “life verse” was Proverbs 5:19. As you might imagine, our staff meetings were filled with a great deal of laughter, very much in the spirit of Rachel’s “add a word” meme.

  • http://www.bronlea.com Bronwyn Lea

    You nailed it! The maranatha prayer and “deliver us room evil” should not be as foreign to our tongues as they are. My most shared post ever was on the subject of prayer (learning to pray God “make it count” instead of just “make it better – http://bronlea.com/2013/08/06/one-little-word-that-radically-changed-my-prayers/), but your post makes me wonder how better to pray the lament of the psalmist. Food for thought, thank you.

  • http://bronlea.wordpress.com Bronwyn Lea

    You nailed it. My most shared ever post was on the subject of prayer (learning to pray “make it count” instead of “make it better” – http://bronlea.com/2013/08/06/one-little-word-that-radically-changed-my-prayers/ ), but this makes me wonder how better to pray the psalmist a words of lament in the midst of faith. We need more maranatha, “deliver us from evil” prayer training. Great food for thought, thank you.

  • http://inkyjazz.com Bridgetr

    Great observation and accompanying illustration! Sadly there are a lot of discrepancies between our typical “evangelical practices” and what’s in the Bible. If we really referred to the Scriptures to answer WWJD, or even what should Church people do, we’d have a very different picture. I think the Church is slowly awakening, though.

  • http://dressforacause.wordpress.com Shakirah A. Hill

    Great post Rachel!

    I’ve been studying all 150 Psalms and what I love is the utter transparency of the Psalmists. They didn’t hold anything back from God.

    It seems, Protestants have made prayer formulaic. Yet, the Bible shows that prayer is conversation with God. Personally, I approach my relationship with God as such: He is my Lord, Savior, Father and best friend. He gets the most vulnerable parts of me in my prayer life. And like you, I’ve sometimes wanted to hold back, but all great relationships are built on trust. Even if none of my prayers get answered, at the very least God knew I trusted Him enough to open up my heart.

    The stick figures were awesome by the way.

  • Cara Strickland

    I love this. Such true words.

    I just went through something hard in my life and I found myself very drawn to the Psalms, angry, lamenting and all.

    Also, at some point, I think that you should do a blog entry of just collected comments from your dad. :) I always read the comments, just for him.

    • dad

      Now there’s a scary thought for Halloween– The Complete Rants & Rambles of Rachel’s Dad!

      This really is an excellent post, and I’m glad to see that so many others think so. Having presided over more then a quarter-century of evangelical Prayer Meetings, I have quite often been struck by the difference– often a staggering one– between what I hear in church and what I read in the Bible, especially the Psalms.

      Where is the honesty, the passion, the life? Why do so many people pretend that they cannot relate to the imprecatory Psalms, when we known darn well that we all do at times. It reminds me of something I once read about Victorian people referring to the legs of tables and chairs as “limbs,” lest they be regarded as being indelicate!

      Too many evangelicals, at least many that I have worked with, have drunk deeply at those Victorian wells, whether they know it or not (and they generally don’t). Give me the earthy frankness of a Luther, raucously boasting (over good German beer, natürlich) of how he “chased the Devil away with a fart.” Now that’s a brother I could talk over a problem with, methinks!

      An amateur actor in my Brooklyn church once told me that one of his favorite models for prayer was Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. He said that the famous milkman was one of the few people, real or fictitious, he’d ever seen who speak to God honestly.

      I think of that often, and have learned from it. In fact, I have learned from it so much so that I am often quite uncomfortable with the prayer that, ex officio, I have to utter publicly. It feels so inauthentic compared to what transpires on my long walks with God (for some reason I can only really pray while walking about; sitting still the mind wanders hopelessly).

      Why, I sometimes wonder, do I never hear Abraham’s bargaining session with the Almighty (Genesis 18) mentioned as one of the “great prayers of the Bible?” It’s absolutely marvelous, and I confess I have a hard time reading it aloud without starting to slip into character as Tevye.

      And with that, I’m off for a few miles with Our Creator and Lord!

  • http://highupontherock.wordpress.com qoheleth1958

    Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Great post. Found the link over at Cara’s (see comment above). Let’s see if I can remember what I recently advised a lady whose husband was diagnosed with facial cancer and her sister-in-law with liver cancer (in the same week) to pray. Oh yes. “God, what the HELL do you think you are doing?” Serious lack of respect, I know. On the other hand, it was an absolutely sincere prayer. And I know He both heard the prayer and answered it, because we saw answers coming in her life within the next 48 hours.