I readily acknowledge that some of what I write on this topic may be offensive to some. I ask that you read it carefully and reflectively before reacting.
I will offer a scene that is common enough across America (and perhaps elsewhere), leaving the identifications blank (though they may be inferred by the reader).
A young couple is greeted at their door by two young men, well-dressed and well-spoken. They ask permission to enter the home and discuss certain religious topics. Ultimately they present an account of Christianity that is new for the young couple, filled with historical judgments and observations that the early Church ceased to properly exist in its early years and remained in need of renewal. They offer an account of a unique American experience in which angels, John the Baptist, and ultimately the Apostles themselves, revealed a new book (like a Bible) with new and corrective ideas which were meant to complete and augment the Scriptures.
The discussion is interesting and new to the young couple. The first visit occasions further visits. Ultimately, the young couple is advised to, “Pray about these things,” and to make a decision about their validity on that basis. Nothing could sound more innocent or less challenging. “Pray about it.” If the evangelists were insincere would they want you to pray about it?
For many young couples, the truth (the awful truth) is that this will be the first thing they have ever prayed about together. Some (maybe the majority) will reject the new account of history and revelation offered to them. Others will find their prayer experience overwhelming and will become part of this American sectarian religion.
The awful truth contained in this story is two-fold. Most young couples (and most older couples) will never have prayed about anything together. In my experience, despite all lip-service, most families in the American spiritual tradition have never had a common prayer life and would not know where to begin (other than bedtime prayers and “Now I lay me down to sleep”).
This, of course, leaves them particularly vulnerable to an invitation to “pray about it.” How would they know what an answer to prayer looks like? Do they know the voice of God? Why were they not directed to discuss the matters with elders and pastors of their Church?
The simple truth, painful as it is, is that “pray about it” is among the worst spiritual advice ever given to someone. Not that God should not be prayed to – but most people have so little experience in such a reality that “praying about it” is tantamount to asking them to write an algorithm on the topic or express it in terms of quantum mechanics.
There is, properly, a great reverence for prayer in our culture – but very little true experience in prayer. The great American controversy about “prayer in schools” (which is officially unconstitutional) was well answered by the observation, “As long as there are math tests in schools, there will be prayers.”
But there is a much larger question involved in all of this. Should we make decisions, momentous decisions, based on “praying about things?” Is prayer the means to obtain the truth and make proper decisions in the Christian life?
Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
It is clear that prayer is an essential part of the Christian life. However, our modernized version of Christianity has rendered prayer (like everything else) as a uniquely individual and private matter. Thus young couples, devoid of a proper prayer life, find themselves easy prey to wolves who would bear witness to a false gospel and suggest that they “pray about it.”
A common refrain in Orthodox prayer services (particularly those that are dedicated to individual purposes) asks that all things be “for the benefit of our salvation.” Such a parenthesis is utterly essential to a proper understanding of the life of prayer. What benefit would anything be for us (or how could God Himself be good) if the result of prayer was something that was detrimental to our salvation? How many individuals have rejoiced at the winning of a state lottery, only to repent later, after their lives have been ruined by the infusion of such un-earned riches?
We often think we know what is best for our lives, and pray accordingly. But the simple truth is that we rarely have any idea what is necessary in our lives (or that of anyone else) in terms of salvation. Salvation is far more than coming to make a statement that “Jesus is the Lord of my life.” It is the daily living consequences of having accepted Christ as Lord of life. Such a consequence is difficult and demanding, sweeping away all false idols before it and healing even the secret thoughts of our hearts. It is terrifying.
Few of us would ever complete a short time in prayer and actually ask for such an all-encompassing event in our lives. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
I would never want to discourage anyone from the life of prayer. But I would counsel wisdom and warn about the foolishness of modern American versions of the life of prayer. When I work with catechumens, those who are new to the Orthodox faith, I give them a traditional set of prayers to begin with as a part of a daily discipline. This discipline is gradually expanded – but carefully avoids the ego-centric prayers encouraged by our cultural religion.
I do not know what I need. I do not know what I need for my salvation. I do not know, specifically, what is needed in someone else’s life for their salvation. This is a great quandary for a priest. I do not know precisely what is needed in the life of those for whom I am accountable. I know they should pray, seek to avoid sin, come to confession frequently, and make their communion with as good a heart as possible. And I should be helpful to them in all these things.
Should their business fail and they face bankruptcy – I have no idea whether this is good or bad. If a marriage ends – I cannot always tell whether this is good or bad. Many things admit of a variety of understandings, and God alone knows what is good. And even the God who knows what is good promises us that for those who love God and are called according to His purposes, “All things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). I am certain only that it is bad to abandon God – to willingly place oneself beyond His help (though this is not to actually place ourselves beyond His help). We cannot make God abandon us or hate us. It is simply not within our power.
We should pray. Mostly, we should pray for our salvation. We should make our requests known to God with thanksgiving, and accept our lives with equal thanksgiving. Otherwise, we make ourselves the judge of God – a very precarious existence indeed.
It is possible to admonish someone to “pray about it.” It is far more mature and honest to say, “Come let us pray about it – let us lay it before the elders of the congregation and let them judge.” The individualism and supposed competency of every person is simple nonsense.
Seek God and be wise.