Pray About It

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.

47 Responses to “Pray About It”

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  2. NicholasMyra Says:

    Father,

    You have made an important point. Even demons can give people the strength to “pray” for evil things or to pray in error. In our culture, people often use prayer as one appeals to a magic eightball, thinking “if I receive a sensation, then I have my answer” or worse, “if I still want this bad thing after I pray about it, then it must be good.”

    I have been guilty of this.

  3. Margaret Says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for the whole posting here, but especially the last 2 paragraphs and the final sentence:

    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. (end quote)

    These words I needed to read/hear as encouragement to be true helpmate to my husband and the mother God would have me be to my children. Glory to God for All Things!

  4. Robert Says:

    Fr. Stephen, would you say that “read the Bible” falls in the same category as “pray about it”? It would seem to be similarly poor advise in many cases. Unguided we make of prayer and scripture as we see fit and our delusion continues unchecked.

  5. Anon Y. Moose Says:

    As the minister for a Protestant church, I am often disturbed by the prayer requests I receive. Although I talk about taking things before God and letting Him handle it, in practice this is not done. Probably this is because of the attitude that salvation is something already accomplished, thus it does not matter what happens to us. May we all learn to pray for our salvation, and leave all judgment of whether events are good or evil where it belongs

  6. mushroom Says:

    That is great insight, Father. I really appreciate it, and I agree that the idea of prayer is often abused. I like to think over the years I have learned to do more “praying to” than “praying for” or “about”.

  7. Allen Says:

    I gave up long ago asking for anything specific. I am too depraved to even know what to ask. I even questioned my Christianity, “everyone else” seemed to have such a vibrant prayer life. I always came back to “thy will be done”

  8. David Kontur Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,
    I am always very moved by your reflections. I once had the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Unlike the two men in your reflection, here is what he said (I am paraphrasing) – If you are a Christian, don’t run off and become a buddhist, but be a good Christian, learn about, appreciate, and live the living traditions of your faith and faith community – deepen that. I was very moved to hear him challenge all of us there to deepen our Christian faith and practice rather than try to make converts. Thank you for helping so many to delve deeper into our living tradition and faith.
    Warmest wishes!!
    Dave

  9. Galactic Catholic Says:

    Allen you rock. I especially like Father’s line,” we rarely have any idea what is necessary in our lives”. The essence of Spiritual poverty is to be humble before Calvary. I think false humility and false pride come into light when you do not have a spiritual director. Pray continuously, but definitely form the will with proper guidance.

  10. Ruth Ann Says:

    Overall I found everything you said in this post helpful. I especially like the part about praying for our salvation, and I hope that also means praying for the salvation of others as well. I do think our culture promotes ego-centric prayers.

  11. Harlemite Says:

    Fr. Bless.

    I most certainly hope you record this as a podcast on AFR.

  12. angela damianakis Says:

    Wonderful. Amen. Too many of us walk in a quasi lucid state praying on matters waiting supersticiously for a feeling sign or dream. Pray traditional established prayers. Get to church and you will learn what prayer is. Spending time getting focused on God is good. Talking to God like He’s an extension of your ego not so much.

  13. William Gautsch Says:

    It’s true that God is not a person to play guessing games with s/a throwing a barrage of requests like a fistful of darts His way in an effort to have one or more hit the target. Joseph’s life teaches us exactly what you say about not knowing what is good or bad in the long run. But from the perspective of going through hard and painful experiences He doesn’t disparage supplicants from crying out in our anguish and grief and misery for relief and comfort, healing and deliverance, provision and justice, wisdom and guidance. How else did Joseph come to the conclusion that God meant it all for the good without growing permanently bitter in the midst of the struggle. He had to be “persuaded” along the way, not just at the very end.
    Thank you Father Stephen for elevating our perspective on prayer and helping us to appreciate a more firm reliance on the effective fervent prayers of our forefathers. They would not have written them down if they weren’t keepers.

  14. Nonna Says:

    Just wanted to give you an “Amen”…🙂 Lord, have mercy…

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    “Billy”
    I deeply agree – and I could think of no one I would rather have praying for me. The great mystery of prayer (including the anguish, etc.) is that it draws us into ever deeper union with God – where we learn that the mystery of salvation is the cross. The fire of prayer is the fire of God.

  16. William Gautsch Says:

    Oh God, keep me burning.

  17. Chris Says:

    Brother Stephen (I apologize for not using the honorific title of father, but I do not do this because of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9)
    I am a Penticostal Charismatic Christian, and have never had an opportunity to ask a couple questions. First off, I enjoyed your post, I do agree prayer is very poorly done these days. Mostly when someone needs something or is being selfish. Our prayers are supposed to line up with the will of God, thusly we are to pray without ceasing and are to meditate on God’s word day and night. My questions are this: what is the scriptural basis for 1. Confession to anyone besides God Himself and 2. Asking for intercession from those who are dead? Thanks!!

  18. Chris Says:

    I also wanted to say this…my wife and I are a young couple (well, close to young) and I have invited these gentlemen, of which you speak, into my house on occasion to listen to what they have to say. I always tell them that God is not forgetful or clumsy. He did not accidentally leave something out of His Word. The only way I would believe their add-on to be valid would be for Jesus Himself to literally appear to me, on the spot, and tell me it is valid. But that of course would never happen. God bless!

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Chris,
    James 5:14-16 instructs us to confess our sins to one another. In Orthodoxy, we do not believe that we confess our sins to the priest, but to God, the priest acts as witness, sometimes with advice, and assures the penitent of God’s forgiveness.

    There is also Christ’s instructions to the Apostles, “Whosoever sins you forgive are forgiven…” which traditionally the Church understood to be part of the apostolic authority of Church’s ministry. There are historical cases in which people went to “Confessors”, i.e. those who had suffered for Christ but not been killed, and confessed their sins before them and asked their prayers.

    As for the other matter. God is not the God of the dead but of the living. We read in Revelations of the prayers of the martyrs ascending day and night before the throne of God. We ask the prayers of the community of God’s faithful – both those who are present among us and those who are present with the Lord. The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. And so we welcome their prayers for us. They pray for you, by the way, whether you ask them to or not. Prayer is the sound of love for the brethren in the presence of God (how can they not pray for us?).

    A final thought on confession. People are always free to confess their sins in private to God. My pastoral experience tells me, however, that we are often not fully honest, and we rarely weep in such settings. The presence of God’s witness, on the other hand, has a powerful impact, often bringing tears before a word is spoken, and able to offer encouragement to a brother or sister so that they are not afraid to bring darkness into the light.

    Orthodoxy does not have a legal or forensic mentality in these things (that is more the mark of the Medieval West). Instead, our focus tends to be on the continued healing of the heart and our conformity to the image of God. We don’t go to a priest for confession for any legal reason – but because it’s a far better “practice of medicine” – something St. James obviously understood.

    There is also the discipline of the priesthood in which the secrecy of confession is absolute. Without such a discipline confession would not be safe. I have seen confession in more public settings (mostly Baptist or Pentecostal). Such a practice (confession before a group) can have many harmful consequences.

    Orthodoxy has been at this for 2000 years – which is a lot of pastoral experience. I would to God that we lived worthy of such an inheritance.

  20. Doug C. Says:

    Thank you Father Stephen, this post reminds me of one many reasons I was drawn to Orthodoxy. I grew up in Restoration Movement churches. My father was Bible college educated(so was I,) and a missionary. This being said, I always found the spontaneous prayer life we had lacking. Now I am able to rely on others who are wiser than myself for guidance in prayer. I am able to ask the Saints to pray on my behalf knowing that they are not dead, but in the presence of the Almighty, their faith being perfected. I am able to say the prayers of the Church, relying on the wisdom that I know I do not have. I am able to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” An incredible, yet simple prayer. A prayer which establishes true reality, not my own self-indulgent fantastical ideas. Coming to the Orthodox Church has removed the cloud of pride and self-indulgence from my eyes.(though I try to put it back some times) Orthodoxy has helped me begin the path of learning to pray, not as I will, but as God would have me pray.

  21. Ryan Says:

    Fr Stephen, would you be willing to give me the traditional set of prayers to begin with – I am a chatechumen. rharbry@gmail.com

  22. Romanós Says:

    Whoa! Already 21 comments, so mine is sure to add nothing new, but I agree with Fr Stephen about everything.

    When first married and raising four sons, we had a daily, common prayer and bible reading life together, which lasted till around the time the youngest was entering his teens. I can’t give details about why this ended, but they are tragic, and had tragic consequences. That only proves that the life of family prayer only has good effects when it is maintained.

    But my boys all learned to read before they ever went to school because we read the prayers and the bible together, daily and nightly. After supper, the table was cleared and the bibles brought to the table, even when the youngest was only an infant in arms. This was the happiest time of my life, and the safest. When priests came over and saw what we were doing (Espiscopal priests) they said things like “How nice!” but we got the impression that how we were living was an oddity in that church. When we joined Holy Orthodoxy, it was assumed we had a family prayer life, but I can tell you, that again we were an oddity as far as I could tell, from questioning the kids in my Sunday School classes.

    The family is the house church, and the health of the whole church, the community, cannot rise higher than the health of its component families. We have grown so accustomed to “church as usual” that it no longer is even attempted to live the way we did. God cannot be fooled, and what we are seeing in the churches (not only Orthodox but everywhere) is the result of putting God where we think He belongs. We might as well have household gods in a niche above the kitchen stove and worship them, since our worship of the true God by living in Him has become almost no better than that.

    Lord have mercy. As the Word of God asks (in the gospel of Luke), “but when the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on earth?”

  23. Rebecca Says:

    Thank you for this. Provocative, powerful, true.

    At the risk of displaying my own prelast, I’ll say that once only did I feel that a specific, personal prayer was answered. It was on a topic of great personal moment, but it was only answered when I stopped dressing up my own hopes and fantasies as prayer and said, as honestly and humbly as I could manage, “Thy Will be done.”

  24. Lina Says:

    I seem to have two sorts of prayers. The ones in books and the stuff of my life that I share with God as the day goes along. Perhaps these might be called Abba prayers. The sort of things that a a child would talk with his father/mother about.

    The second part of prayer that is rarely mentioned is that of listening for a response. A relationship is a two way street.

  25. isaac8 Says:

    The other like advice I have heard is determining whether some decision gives one a sense of peace. I’ve seen far too many people be at peace with too much foolishness or outright badness to believe that one.

  26. mike Says:

    … i appreciate Father Stephens explanation of confession…it makes perfect sense when put that way….i sympathize with Chris..being a pentecostal/charismatic myself (Assemblies of God)…It was’nt until i discovered the ancient writings of the very first christians and early church elders that i began to see a “disconnect” between the early church and how i defined ‘church’ today…it was quite shocking to me..and even more importantly i questioned why none of the preachers i knew were quoting or referencing from the vast volumes of christian writings that were preserved down through the ages….this all led me to where i am today….exploring Orhtodoxy through blogs such as this one..

  27. Doug C. Says:

    Mike, I too discovered much through the writings of the Fathers, however, it was the invitation to “come and see” which wrought the most good. I had reached a point of theological understanding where I could no longer attend the restoration movement church I was in. Fortunately I contacted(through God’s pushing) my local parish priest; he invited me to “come and see.” This was the invitation I needed to put what I believed into action. May I suggest that you take the plunge and attend Divine Liturgy one weekend. Come and see.

  28. James the Brother Says:

    Doug C.

    I am also a convert from the “Restoration” movement and migrated through readings and attending but mainly by absorbing. You offer good information.

    Chris,

    I am glad you are reading and contributing to this blog. I’ve never met Father Stephen, but I know him to be humble servant who loves God, loves the Holy Orthodox Church and loves mankind. I also understand from your training your reluctance to acknowledge him as Father. I applaud you for remaining true to yourself. I really applaud you for being very respectful in stating your view.

    I hope you will continue to read, explore and breathe deeply of this ancient faith.

  29. Willard Says:

    The little girl lighting a prayer candle is a beautiful expression of Christianity. Glory to God!

  30. Dean Arnold Says:

    When I visited the Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia for a week, the abbot there asked me if I prayed the daily prayers. Not really, I said, so I began to do so.

    A couple days later, he asked me how it was going. I told him that I found it strange that in my earlier days I could pray for great lengths, sometimes hours at a time, but found it really difficult to get through ten minutes of daily prayers.

    The abbot told me a story of a monk who came to a monastery and was asked to do ten prostrations a day. He became angry, expecting to get a real challenge, like 500 prostrations a day. A few days later, the leader of the monastery asked his progress. He said that, for some reason, he just couldn’t get around to doing those daily ten prostrations.

    The spiritual elder told him: “That is because the demons were empowering you when you performed your 500 prostrations on your own. But when you are obeying the proper authority, these demons then attempt to empower you in the opposite direction.”

    Food for thought.

  31. Robert Says:

    Father, you write,

    “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. ”

    I have always heard that divorce should be treated as a kind of unpardonable sin, and that even in divorce the marriage does not end. What is the Church’s understanding of this?

  32. Ibn Battenti Says:

    Well said Willard. The simple things are more often pleasing to God.

  33. Chris Says:

    Brother Stephen (again I hope this does not offend) I thank you deeply for your response.

    James the brother thank you as well for your kind words.

  34. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    Hmmm…it makes some sense to me to not filter…but instead, say to God everything and anything that shows up in one’s mind and heart, however trivial or apparently unspiritual, etc., and then let Him sort it out, assuming that His will, not one’s own, will be done…?

  35. Robert Says:

    Anonymousgodblogger,

    Don’t see a problem with the trivial and the unspiritual per se, however such an approach would seem to be void of a true change within the person praying. It would seem to be a very one sided and dangerously shallow approach – no dialogue, no interaction, no change. This is not the approach of the Fathers for whom a real participation in the divine Life, a true communion and synergy – a working together with God – is the goal for the Christian.

  36. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    Robert, Oh, I didn’t mean that the way I described would be the only way one would pray–it would be in addition to the liturgical and formal ways of praying and listening.
    It’s just that this idea of censoring oneself toward God seems very…sad and lonely.

  37. Robert Says:

    Agreed, censoring is not a good idea. But I do not think that is advocated here by Fr Stephen, nor is censoring common to the patristic understanding of spirituality. Even as an addition to formal prayer, your approach misses the mark, methinks.

  38. Robert Says:

    Though I must add the Fathers are of one voice as to the need for discriminating as to thoughts, feelings, passions, motivations, desires and such. It is part of reversing the fragmentation of our beings, of centering our mind in our hearts, but this is a work with God, a synergy.

  39. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    Robert,

    Wait, I’m a littlel confused about what you’re saying. I’ll copy and paste your posting in two parts. It seems that part one contradicts part two. Can you explain?

    1. Agreed, censoring is not a good idea. But I do not think that is advocated here by Fr Stephen, nor is censoring common to the patristic understanding of spirituality. (Here you seem to be saying, “Don’t censor.”

    2. Even as an addition to formal prayer, your approach misses the mark, methinks. (Here you seem to be saying something different…?)

  40. Robert Says:

    Anonymousgodblogger,

    My apologies for a failure to communicate clearly. Let me try again. 😀

    Censure, understood as the mere suppression of thoughts and feelings, is not necessarily the same as the patristic (and Orthodox Church’s) teaching on learning in the power of the Holy Spirit to recognize the disordered and destructive passions. Your suggestion as to indiscriminately let “everything and anything that shows up in one’s mind and heart” run unchecked (if I understood you comment correctly), this is contrary to sound spiritual advise of the Fathers. Furthermore, I would add that this applies to all forms of prayer, “formal” or “informal”.

  41. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    I will keep thinking about this…thank you! I didn’t mean run unchecked, but rather, be experienced in and with His presence so that THAT is the filter/transformation rather than my shutting things down preemtively.

  42. Robert Says:

    I think we agree.

    Truth of the matter is that we can’t hide trivial or disordered thoughts from God. The question is why are we occupied with such? The answer is not found in applying a dose of moralism (i dont mean to say you implied such) but being transformed into God’s likeness, existentially and ontologically. May God grant it so!

  43. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    Amen! Also, sometimes it seems possible that the more one expresses passing trivialities to God, and leaves them with Him, the less one is occupied with them! Thank you for your words.

  44. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    One more thought about this. I have never forgotten a conversation I had with a mentally challenged grocery store bagger. He told me, “I live by myself, and if I didn’t have Jesus to talk to, I don’t know what I’d do.” I am pretty sure he doesn’t filter what he says to the Lord…and that’s all I meant, really. Thank you to Fr. Stephen and to Robert for all that you have been saying.

  45. Pray About It « Glory to God for All Things | Nothing Clever Comes to Mind Says:

    […] via Pray About It « Glory to God for All Things. […]

  46. Elizabeth Mahlou Says:

    This is excellent and unusual counsel. It occasions much thought. I plan to share your post with my prayer group. We are Catholic, not Orthodox, but I believe what you say is as pertinent for us as it is for your parishioners.

  47. quotations Says:

    inspiration quotes…

    Pray About It « Glory to God for All Things…

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