The Ethics of Praying For Others

The Ethics of Praying For Others January 4, 2018

The post The Pagan Practice of Prayer generated a lot of positive comments, primarily from those who are trying to reclaim the beneficial practice of prayer from the religion of their childhood. But a few people reacted negatively, particularly to the idea of praying for others. Some think it’s impious, while others worry about impacting the free will of those for whom they are praying.

Those concerns aren’t completely unfounded. Praying for others is a good thing, but doing it ethically requires that we do it respectfully, mindfully, and humbly.

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The Gods are not our servants

In the original post, I said “The Gods are persons, not vending machines where you insert offerings and blessings fall out.” We can ask, but we have neither right nor reason to assume They will grant our request. The Gods are not our servants and They cannot be bribed or cajoled into answering our prayers in a favorable way.

There are those who claim that praying for anything is impious, because it presumes to impose on the sovereignty of the Gods. They will do what They will do and we have no right to ask Them to do otherwise. Honestly, that sounds too much like Calvinism for my tastes (though I know such thinking didn’t originate with Calvin).

There are stories from every age of people who prayed to this God or that God who received what they asked for. And while I’m sure certain deities are disappointed when we ask Them to give us something we should be working for on our own, I know of no stories where people were punished just for asking.

The Gods are often gracious – it never hurts to ask. Just ask respectfully and reverently.

Praying for others is a good thing

One of the most basic forms of prayer is expressing the yearnings of our hearts. We yearn for connection and relationships, for justice and beauty, and for a variety of states and conditions of being. And we yearn for the wellbeing of those who are closest to us… and in some cases, for the wellbeing of those who aren’t so close.

We can express this desire for wellbeing in many ways. We can wish others well. We can take tangible actions to help them meet their needs. We can build a society that is fair and just and compassionate. And we can ask our most powerful allies – the Gods – for Their help in these efforts.

Pray respectfully

Praying for the wellbeing of others is a good thing. But let us remember to be respectful when we do.

I welcome the prayers of the followers of all faiths. But when some Christians say they’re praying for me, I know what they mean is that they’re praying for my conversion to their religion. Rather than respecting my religious tradition and all the experiences that go into it, they’re assuming they know what I need better than I do. They’re not praying for me – they’re asking their God to give them a conquest.

Don’t be the Pagan equivalent of those Christians.

What of the opposite side of this coin? What of those who say “don’t pray to your heathen Gods for me!” Very well. If that’s how they feel, I’ll respect their wishes. If they’re a casual acquaintance, that ends my attempt to intercede on their behalf. On the other hand, I’m perfectly willing to pray to Jesus on behalf of my close friends and family who are Christians. I have no issues with Jesus – it’s the religions made up about Him that bother me.

And what of the atheists who don’t want anyone praying for them at all? If they tell me not to pray for them I’ll respect their wishes. Otherwise, I’ll pray for their wellbeing the same as anyone else.

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Pray mindfully

I have a friend who works in a geriatric hospital. He tells countless horror stories about families putting loved ones through torturous treatment after torturous treatment because they refuse to let go.

“You’re going to make Mama well, aren’t you?”

“She’s 90 years old, she has cancer and heart disease. She’s not going to get well.”

“Then we’ll move her to another hospital where they’ll do more surgery.”

And so instead of making Mama comfortable and helping her transition peacefully, they subject her to even more painful and stressful invasive treatments and extend her life by a few more weeks. A few more weeks spent in suffering.

If your 60 year old friend breaks a leg in a bike wreck, by all means pray for their full and quick recovery.  But death eventually comes for all of us, and keeping people here past their time is cruel and selfish. There comes a time when praying for someone’s wellbeing means praying for a quick and easy death, not for a “recovery” that will never happen.

As with working magic, praying for something or someone works best when you know exactly what it is you want. That’s hard enough when you’re praying for yourself. It’s much harder when you’re praying for someone else. Make sure you’re praying for what they want and what’s best for them, not what you want or what you think they should have.

Pray humbly

Working magic requires a certain amount of arrogance. It is, in some ways, stealing fire from the Gods. Every spell is an act of will. Every working says “I choose this” and in doing so, says “I reject that” to all other alternatives.

But in prayer, we ask persons who are stronger and wiser than us to give us Their aid. It isn’t only that the Gods aren’t our servants and so we have no right to order Them around. We should expect that They will use Their superior judgement to respond in the ways They think best.

I’m a decent amateur photographer. If you want me to take some pictures for you, just tell me what you’re looking for. Don’t try to tell me which camera to use, what film speed, or what aperture setting. Let me use my expertise. Ask for the ends – leave the means to me. Unless, of course, you know more about photography than I do… in which case you don’t need me to take pictures for you.

If you ask the Gods for Their assistance, have the humility to accept They know “how” much better than you do, and They may respond in ways you aren’t expecting. The Christian God is not the only one who works in mysterious ways.

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It is good to pray for others

It is good to pray. It is good to talk to the Gods and to listen for their presence. It is good to pray both formally and conversationally. It is good to offer prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and devotion. It is good to speak the yearnings of your heart.

And it is good to pray for the wellbeing of others, whether they are close to us or not.

It is good to pray.

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