Often when we meet people who are facing great difficultly, we are unsure how to respond. When it is person of faith who has come to us, however, our consultation often becomes more focused, understandably so, on our spiritual resources. After all, it is God, not myself, who is capable of remedying the situation. Finding our own sense of comfort in this realization, we are tempted to assume that what is helpful for us will be hopeful for them. And then, with confidence, we offer: “Have you tried praying about it?” or even “You should pray about it.”
In my experience, questions or statements like these often become a barrier to caregiving and can even inflict serious harm. I want to suggest that when hurting people come to us for support, our offering these reposes can become a self-protective move, potentially causing shame and isolation for our partner even as it excuses us from an honest ministerial encounter. In other words, these statements can be offered for my own benefit and ask the risk of my hindering my wounded partner. Let me try to explain myself by looking at each of these statements individually.
Have you tried praying about it?
Not long ago a very well-meaning Christian asked me this question after I explained to her my financial struggles while living in LA and being in seminary. I know without a doubt that she simply wanted me to be comforted by taking my requests to God. When she asked, however, I noticed myself shutting down as I felt angry and misunderstood. “Of course I’ve prayed about! I pray for provision every single day! It’s what I’m thinking about with ever dollar I spend!” I wondered later that day, “If I have been praying about it, and no resolution has come in two years…what is wrong with my prayers? What is wrong with my spirituality? What is wrong with…me?
My contention here is that asking hurting people, “Have you tried praying about it?” unintentionally communicates shame because, in offering that question, we are suggesting that God’s agency is based on the performance of the person in need. In asking this question, particularly without offering further support, we potentially communicate all kinds of messages that we would otherwise never dream of suggesting. Unintentionally, we risk communicating to our partner all kinds of harmful ideas such as:
- This problem is really between you and God, I don’t need to be a part of your struggle. You are alone with your pain.
- Prayer is all I would need in your situation, therefore, you should be ashamed of needing something more.
- There is likely an easy answer to your struggle (i.e. prayer) and I don’t assume that you are capable of seeking that easy answer without my prompting.
- That if God hasn’t responded in noticeable ways, it is likely connected to a flaw in your spirituality and therefore:
- God’s love is conditional, depending on “perfect” spiritual behavior. You should try harder.
“You should pray about it.”
In the task of ministering to others in crisis, should is a most dangerous word. In part, this is because, by telling people what they “should” do, we communicate just as loudly what they shouldn’t do. When a family member is critically ill, and I tell everyone in the hospital room that they should make it their primary task to pray for healing, then I risk communicating that what they shouldn’t do is feel, grieve, hope, cry, become angry, repent, forgive, reconcile, review life, say goodbye, and other healthy paths into grief and recovery.
My point here is that by offering a list of shoulds to people in need, we actually excuse ourselves from the task of joining others in their suffering by communicating that we are standing on the outside looking in, with a whole list of answers in hand. By rushing to shoulds we can unintentionally communicate to our partner all kinds of harmful messages, such as:
- I know what’s best for you and the grieving/healing process. You don’t.
- If it is difficult to match your emotions with prayer then it is best to stuff those emotions down, denying them for spiritual reasons.
- You have not likely not prayed enough. If you would have prayed more, things would be better.
- You should change your response to pain and suffering because God does not meet us in anger, denial, suffering, or repentance. And therefore:
- God’s love is conditional, depending on “perfect” spiritual behavior. You should be stronger, better, more independent.
My point here is not that we shouldn’t pray or that we shouldn’t empower others to access their spiritual resources which, truly, might be their best support in difficult times. Rather, I think prayer should be offered and encouraged responsibly and cautiously, rarely as an initial act of caregiving. For those young and poor seminarians living on student loans, prayers of honesty and thanksgiving are essential. And for the grieving family, prayers of lament and hope may be the only words worth speaking. Yet, given the powerful reality of subtext, how and why these prayers are offered matters deeply.
My ultimate assumption is that prayer is best offered in a context of trust and with a clear invitation. We will always struggle with knowing what to say to those courageous and vulnerable enough to share with us their struggles. Perhaps that struggle is a gift for us to remember that, most often, our words and advice pale in comparison with our presence and acceptance. We must pray. But perhaps we must first engage in the more difficult and committed process of sitting with the other without expectation or condition. Maybe then we can pray with them in such a way that communicates not shame but honesty. Maybe then they will hear another list of imbedded messages:
- I hear you. You are safe and not alone.
- God’s love is not conditional.
- God’s love is persistent.
- Some things are too painful for simple fixes but God sits with us here, present in the chaos. And therefore:
- You are enough.