Be careful what you pray for . . . is the first part of a saying we’ve likely heard. It came to my mind recently when reading a person’s comment to the prayer request of another. I was surprised by the pray-er’s assumption that she knew what the requester needed. While not about prayer, a quote from Wendell Berry offers a valid warning to us when we pray for others:
We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world—to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it.
Have you ever shuddered at the way someone’s prayer assumed to know what was best for another? Or was ignorant of all the facts? Is it right to pray for a marriage to be saved if one spouse abuses the other? If an elderly cancer victim is ready to cross the threshold into heaven, do you pray for them not to die?
In early May I attended a Five-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation on the Georgia coast. One of our presenters, Sister Kathleen Flood, was asked how we should pray for others. The question was prompted by the uneasiness of presuming to know the need of another. Sister Kathleen offered a lovely response. She said when others ask her to pray for specific outcomes, she responds, “I will hold you in prayer.” She went on to tell us that she lifts the person’s name to God in her prayer time, but does not attempt to direct God toward a specific response.
Her answer reminded me of a healing story of Jesus. When Jesus was teaching in a crowded house, friends of a paralyzed man took their friend up on the roof, made a hole in it, and lowered their friend in front of Jesus. They didn’t ask Jesus to heal their friend. They simply placed him at Jesus’ feet.
Their example is a good one for us. Rather than giving God directions about how to respond to another’s need (which, when described as I just have, sounds as presumptuous as it really is), can we simply place our friend in God’s presence and trust that God knows what our friend needs?
In addition to not presuming we know better than God the need of another, such a way of praying relieves us of “pray-er’s guilt.” An example of this is when you pray for another to be cured and they die and you wonder if you didn’t pray hard enough or say the right words, as if there is a magic formula you have to utter to get the prayer to “work.”
Because God is God and we are not, and because sometimes our prayer requests can come with our own selfish agendas, simply holding another in prayer to God is prayer enough. Such a prayer prevents a superfluity of words, and teaches us the humility of letting another go to God’s care and keeping. Let us hold one another up to God, trusting that the One who made us knows our needs.