When you pray, what do you pray for? Do you pray for specific things to happen, say a promotion at work, the attention of a person you’re romantically interested in, or to win the Powerball lottery? Do you pray for the well-being and happiness of others, perhaps for a close friend or one of your children or grandchildren?
I was thinking about the nature of prayer recently, during the final days of my father-in-law’s life. I ran into a neighbor and explained to him the dire situation. The man we called Grandad had terminal cancer, was in at-home hospice, and probably only had a few days left to live. My neighbor responded, “I will pray for him.”
At the time I wondered what he might be praying for. Was it a prayer that the cancer would go into remission and he would make a miraculous recovery? A few days later, when I informed my neighbor of Grandad’s serene passing, he expressed his condolences and his gratitude that he had passed in peace. It is what my neighbor had prayed for.
Prayer #1. The Prayer for the Best Possible Outcome
We often pray for specific things or for a specific outcome. We pray that we’ll get that new job or promotion, or that big home across town. We might even pray that a loved one will emerge from a serious injury or illness unscathed. Yet, the truth is, we do not have crystal ball and cannot see the future. We do not know if our prayers will really make our lives, or the lives of those we pray for, better or more rewarding. For instance:
- We may pray for a troubled relationship to work out when it’s best that both parties move on to new, more meaningful relationships.
- We may pray to get a job we applied for, not realizing it will require late nights and weekend work, costing us precious family time.
- We may pray to get a home we put a bid on, even though it may ultimately put us over our heads financially.
- We may pray for the recovery of a loved one who is near death’s door, only to prolong their suffering.
What if instead of praying for a specific outcome, we prayed for the best possible outcome? This means praying for what is best for ourselves or for those we pray for—without judgement or the desire for a preconceived result. It takes the decision making of what is fair and right out of our hands and puts it in the hands of a higher power, call it fate, the source of all life or God. Why? Because fate/the life source/God knows best.
The American spiritual philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson shared a similar belief in this method of prayer. Emerson believed there was “a higher power” that regulated our daily events and that trying to change our circumstances was “unnecessary and fruitless.” Instead, we should turn inward to the part of ourselves where we can find God. Prayer then becomes “the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.”
Prayer #2. The Prayer for Your Enemies
It may surprise you to learn that that according to a 2014 report published in VOX, the two most common prayers people engage in were prayers for “people who mistreat you” and prayers for “your enemies.” This type of prayer may seem as foreign to you as it does to me, but it follows the lead of Jesus who famously said in Mark 5:44:
But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.
Pray for those who use me and persecute me? If this sounds difficult, it might help to hear what Martin Luther King Jr. said about this practice. King reminds us that in the passage above Jesus was talking about the love called agape. This is not romantic love but the unconditional love that God gives to us. Think of it as a mirror, in which we receive love from God and then reflect it outward to the world. King explains:
Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.
Praying for those who spite or slight us can be tough, but as author Wendy Merron pointed out, “Being angry is like holding a piece of burning coal in your hand and hoping the other person feels pain.” A prayer for our “enemies” helps us release any negative feelings we may be holding onto. What’s more, when we pray that the hearts of others be softened, it also has a way of softening our own hearts. In the long run, love always wins.