We see them permeating all throughout our social media feeds:
“Sending out thoughts and prayers to —”
“Just think positive thoughts!”
“Praying for — ”
“The only way to fight the negativity is to embrace positivity”
Let me start off by saying that I believe that prayer is a powerful force in our lives, and a difficult spiritual practice. Its depth cannot be overstated, but it can easily be made trite. In our Snapchat world, prayer has become even more of a cosmic gumball machine than ever before.
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” – Mahatma Ghandi
“Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” – Mother Teresa
“Help” is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray–with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, “Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.” – Anne Lamott
“I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” – Frederick Douglass
“The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song.
Prayer may not save us. But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
That last line by Rabbi Heschel — “But prayer may make us worthy of being saved” — yanks at me. In my Christian tradition, we are not saved by human works alone but by the free grace of God. Yet Heschel’s words are more directed to the nature of prayer than a path to salvation or justification.
Prayer is relationship.
Prayer is intimacy.
Prayer is action with the divine.
When denominations present prayer solely as a way to get what we want or need from God, I become frustrated. The purposes and hidden depths of prayer are suddenly erased, and replaced with a cheap fabrication.
Is it wrong to ask God for stuff?
Not at all.
But when this type of prayer is held up as the primary conduit of accessing divine support, it is no wonder that we become cynics so quickly. When God doesn’t wave our magic wand or speak our magic words, and our desired gumball doesn’t drop out of the cosmic vending machine, we blame ourselves for not having enough faith; we blame others for their lack of faith; we become disillusioned with God; or, is often the case, we interpret the lack of desired response as God’s will.
That last one is the most dangerous.
Hindsight, my friends, while full of wisdom and experience is not the design for what was “meant to be”. It only means we can look backwards with more perspective and notice more details we weren’t privy to before. The purpose or meaning we attach to this hindsight is entirely our own. But it is not necessarily a divine revelation of truth.
This week, the western world is reeling from the bombing in Brussels, Belgium. Hashtags like #prayingforbrussels have popped up all over the place. This weekend, a suicide bomber killed dozens of people in Lahore, Pakistan. People have started posting #positivepakistan tags, claiming to be holding all sorts of positivity power for people around the world.
Closer to home, there have been no less than three deeply distressing situations where people have told me or family members: “I’m holding positive thoughts for you.”
Oh yeah? How’s that working out for you? ‘Cause it’s sure not doing a thing for me.
From where I stand, positive thought philosophies are no different than gumball prayer theologies. The former erases God from the equation and inserts the universe, removes prayer and injects positive thoughts, and believes that the mind has special power to send out to people in distress.
The kicker is that if the desired result isn’t achieved, the person-in-crisis obviously wasn’t thinking enough positive thoughts. Not enough fairy dust. Not enough good vibrations. Once again, cynicism can set in; or, like with gumball prayer, hindsight becomes like all-powerful god that says:
“This was obviously meant to be.”
Whether it’s God or the universe, these paths of prayer or positive thinking turn the forces at work in our worlds to sadistic beings. It doesn’t matter who the prayers or thoughts are given to, who would design a world where a suicide bomber was meant to blow up men, women and children? What force would see wisdom in stripping low-income people of their homes?
Passing teaching on to the next generation?
What force, I ask you, uses violence, rape, illness, homelessness or other ills to teach us about how to be more loving to one another?
No belief system has ever been able to fully explain the presence of evil in the world. Not one. But we insist on submitting our tickets, taking our numbers, and waiting for our names to be called.
What’s worse, we feel that our forms of support actually exemplify healing or empathy.
“I’ll give you all of my positive thoughts.”
“Positive thoughts bring you good things.”
“I’ll pray for you.”
Let me ask you: how do you actually feel when someone tells you that they’ll give you all of their positive thoughts when your actual needs are lying bare for the world to see? How do you truly feel when someone tells you that they’re remembering you in prayer, but your body is begging for a hand to hold while you cry?
Not only are gumball prayers and positivity thoughtfulness quips often unhelpful, they can be damaging and painful.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, I have no problem with prayer. Believe it or not, I don’t even have a problem with choosing to think positively (despite the fact that it’s a difficult task for me, being more of an idealist than an optimist). My problem rests in the lies that whisper all of our woes as “meant to be”, patting our heads and clucking “there’s a reason for everything”.
Our platitudes coupled with the easy ways out by gumballing it with God or chanting a hipster mantra let us off the hook. We have no need to become intimate with God, little spark to understand the situations around us, and even less impetus to move our feet.
Isn’t that what the old African proverb says: “When you pray, move your feet.”
When we feel helpless, the natural tendency is to cry out to God… the universe… whatever. It’s not wrong. But we must understand that our own grief and discomfort at other people’s grief and discomfort needs to be channeled well. We need to get up — or get down — and dirty, get ourselves involved in the mess, and let our prayers be shaped by our connections and intimacies.
And if someone says “Please don’t pray for me”, or “Please back off with your thoughts”, let it be. We pray in private if we choose to, or think positive thoughts in silence. But it would do us well to understand that our quasi-spiritual responses to relational needs perhaps need to be reframed.
If you’re going through a rough time, and stuff is turning out the way that it is, it doesn’t mean that it’s all “meant to be”. I’m sorry if that’s the line you’ve been fed and how it’s wounded you. It might sound a little freaky considering the possibility that some outcomes are chaos and not embedded in some grand design.
But I choose to believe in a God who is present with me, whatever the outcome. I need a God who is here, who cares about our relationship, and who challenges me step by step. I need a Presence I can be angry with when injustice circles the wagons; and I need a Friend I can lean on when I don’t understand “Why!?”; I need a God who is sensitive to my needs and who challenges me to be sensitive to others’ needs, rather than a deity who simply smiles and shrugs “Que sera, sera.”
And for now, it is enough.