“Just pray about it.”
We’ve all probably been on the giving or receiving end of this bit of advice. Usually we hear it after we pour out a steaming hot mess of things like doubt, fear, confusion or anger. We take the risk of being vulnerable with a trusted friend or mentor, we expose the mess of our lives to someone we hope will listen, who may have some new, wise guidance, and then their response is, “just pray about it.”
On the one hand, this is fantastic advice. The evidence of the power of prayer in the Bible is as bright as thousands of bulbs that light the Rockefeller Square Christmas tree each year. Open, honest and bold communication of the faithful to their heavenly Father often leads to divine intervention. Do you recall the story of a woman named Hannah in the Old Testament? Her anguished prayers caused God to act.
Samuel 1:13 says, “Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard.” Her prayers were so fervent that when the priest Eli saw her, he assumed she was drunk and rebuked her. Hannah faces Eli and corrects him saying,
“I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” (vv. 15-16, NIV)
So corrected, Eli speaks this blessing over her, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” Hannah prayed and God “remembered” her (v. 19) by opening the womb he had previously closed (v. 5).
Because of prayer a barren woman conceived and birthed a son.
This is not an isolated incident. In the Bible, prayer regularly prompts change; it brings resolve, stops plagues and leads to miraculous acts of remembrance. Prayer, literally and metaphorically, leads to life.
Prayer is a direct line of communication with the Creator and Sustainer who out of compassion and love, continuously pours out blessing on his people. As such, prayer is something we should do regularly, eagerly, expectantly and most of all, reverently. But too often we approach prayer the same way we do an ATM.
When I need cash, I go to the ATM, insert my card, make a few simple demands at the push of a button and, voilà – out pops my money! We all know better than to liken God to an ATM, so why do so many of us use prayer like a debit card? Don’t we often speak words of prayer hoping we ‘push the right buttons’ and then wait to receive the ‘cash’ to which we are entitled?
Don’t misunderstand me – there’s nothing wrong with expecting great things from prayer! But spiritual things are seldom as simple as taking money from an ATM.
What I didn’t mention earlier about Hannah is that she prayed for a child for years. Hannah was overcome with grief. Like many grieving people, she lost her appetite and probably that healthy glow people call a luster. Hannah wept and she prayed. She prayed and she wept. The Bible says this went on “year after year” (v. 5). While Hannah grieved, her husband’s other wife (who had many healthy children) taunted Hannah cruelly for her barrenness.
Prayer is powerful. It prompts God to compassionate and merciful action on behalf of his people, but in Hannah’s story we learn that the effects of prayer are not always prompt. That is why it can be so disheartening and insensitive to tell an aching soul, “Just pray about it.” If this is all we say before we walk away from a friend, he or she may feel that we’ve minimized their grief or been deaf and blind to their desperation.
For those who haven’t been utterly ravaged by time and circumstance, for those who still have enough hope to cling to the promises of prayer, the expectation of prompt results carried by the phrase “just pray about it” may be the nick that severs their connection to hope or even to God.
If you have a desperate need or desire and have been waiting and praying for days or months for fulfillment, how strong is your hope? Can it bear the weight of silence or the terrible agitation that grows as time beats through your veins and nothing happens?
What if your season of need stretches into months like Hannah’s? What will your faith be like then? What will you need from your friends? Just prayer, or prayer and…something?
Prayer is an awesome thing but when we are caring for aching people, there are things that complement prayer and bring consolation. Don’t just pray and walk away; your friend does not have that luxury – they are in a sense held captive (think slavery) by their need. They cannot conceptualize life or their future without that thing for which you may casually pray. Instead of just praying, consider these:
- Pray and pour out your soul – Too often prayer is an exercise of suppression rather than passion. There’s no need to hide or hold back our feelings from God because he sees everything in our souls. The good news is that it’s safe to confess it all to him. Let yourself be emotional as you pray. Hannah let even the nasty stuff like bitterness and anguish pour out of her soul. It’s only when we pour out the nasty stuff that we make room for God to fill our souls with consolation.
- Pray and listen – Don’t think prayer ends when you stop speaking. Make time and space to listen into the silence and stillness for the voice of God. Don’t rush off; stay rooted in your seats, be still and know that God is in this with you.
- Pray and wait and pray again – Hannah prayed the same prayer for years. Years! She’s one to emulate. If someone shares with you their requests, keep praying. Go back to them next week, next month or next year and get an update. Pray again. Listen with them. Wait with them. Pray again. In this way you bear one another’s burdens.
- Pray and lament – Lament is not just emotional prayer. To lament is to cry out to God against the things that should not be – against injustice, cruelty and abandonment, hunger and despair – against anything that falls short of God’s character and provision. The Israelites lamented throughout their history and God remembered them, which means he acted for them.
Out of respect to people like Hannah, I must acknowledge a very difficult truth before I close: prayer will not always lead to the things we so desperately seek or expect. God may not give us what we want, even if we are faithful and in a sense ‘deserving.’ And there will be times when it seems that God gives no response to our prayers. (This is one of the mysterious things about God that makes everything in me go quiet.)
But these things do not mean that our prayers are empty or pointless, nor are they signs that God does not love or bless us.
I have many friends who are haunted by infertility. Unlike Hannah, some of these faithful women will never conceive or welcome a healthy child into the world. I hate that this is their reality. I don’t know what their desire or loss feels like but I certainly do pray with and for them. But I don’t just pray.
I pour out my soul with them. I listen into the silence with them. I lament their empty wombs and their grief. I wait for God to move. I expect God to move. I call upon God to do something that matches his wonderful character. I pray and wait and pray hoping that somehow, and in some way, God will make all things new.