A couple of weeks ago, the gospel reading was Luke’s telling of the Mary and Martha story. In that story Martha comes to Jesus and says, “… Tell her [Mary] to help me”. Two weeks later in the gospel reading, Luke 12:13-21, a person asks Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
In response to these two requests, Jesus doesn’t tell the offending parties to do anything. Mary and the brother are left alone. They don’t get “fixed”. Instead Jesus has a suggestion for the petitioner. Martha is encouraged to seek the one thing that is needed- Jesus. The unnamed person is told by Jesus that he doesn’t arbitrate disputes but he does suggest the questioner watch out for greed, which as Paul suggests is a form of idolatry ( Col 3:5).
Jesus, it seems, isn’t in the business of fixing people. At least he doesn’t fix “others” at our request and for our convenience. However, if we are interested in “fixing” ourselves, Jesus has some helpful suggestions for us.
It’s an easy thing to do, to try to fix other people. If you are a person of faith, it can seem like a good thing to ask God to change other people. To change them for the better, of course. We have their best interests at heart. Speaking for myself, I am quite capable of seeing the problems of others as well as having great clarity about what should be done to solve their problems. Good Christian that I am, I offer other people’s problems to God along with my solutions.
But in my experience this sort of prayer is useless- never answered. Honestly, I’m not really praying for the other person. I’m asking God to fix that person because they annoy me, or are a problem for me.
Once I worked with a person who was spectacularly unsuited for her job. She worked as a receptionist in a veterinary practice where I was a staff veterinarian. She was perfectly bad at her job. Many co workers spent time trying to help her develop the skills to do her job adequately, but with no success. She reliably got phone numbers wrong and she miss filed charts. If you asked for to find a lab report, she couldn’t. Worst of all, if she felt provoked or challenged by clients in any way, she felt justified in being rude. She would hang up on callers. Being a receptionist was not a good job for her. Her incompetence affected the moral of the rest of the staff. People spent significant amounts of time trying to repair the damage she caused.
She was, in short, the perfect candidate for the “God, please fix her” prayer. I prayed that prayer with great faithfulness and heartfelt fervor and it was not answered. Until someone, I don’t remember who, gave me a little blue card from Upper Room Books, “The Secret to Abundant Living: Learning How to Ask” which had several very good, practical suggestions about prayer. One of the suggestions on the card number five, said this,” Ask God to help one person whom you find it hard to like. Ask God to give that person insights into his or her personal problems and ask for the power to let God’s love flow through you to him or her.”
Well, I knew one person whom I found hard to like. I was unprepared for how difficult it was for me to pray for her. It was hard to change my “fix her, she annoys me and everyone else” prayer to a prayer of genuine concern for her. As I struggled to pray for her, to pray sincerely for her and her wellbeing, it occurred to me how difficult her life must be. It can’t be any fun to work at a job you can’t do, to be constantly corrected,and to have your coworkers not like you. Gradually I learned to pray for her and to pray that I would be a blessing to her- somehow.
That prayer was answered. One day, to my complete astonishment, as I was praying for this person, I realized she was much better at her job and that I and others found her much less annoying, even occasionally likable. Gradually, and I have to confess completely unnoticed by me, my prayer for my coworker had been answered. It was a prayer for her true wellbeing, motivated out of care and concern for the person, not a prayer motivated out of my needs and wants.
The two gospel lessons from Luke reminded me of this lesson in prayer. People came to Jesus with their requests that other people’s inappropriate, problematic, wrong-headed behavior be changed. And in effect, Jesus said, “Let’s work on you first. What’s really your problem, Martha? Is it Mary’s lack of help, or is it your worry and anxiety, your lack of dependence on me?” And you brother, Why are you so anxious to have your “fair share”? Is that what is most important? Do you really want to put things ahead of relationships?” Jesus responds to people’s request for help. But he doesn’t go around healing those who aren’t interested, and who don’t ask. We aren’t coerced into wholeness.
The only person I can change, and then only by the grace of God, is myself. Honestly, that’s hard enough. Does that mean I don’t pray for other people? Of course not. But I think seriously about how I pray. I try to pray for others to experience healing, wisdom, courage, strength. I ask God to give people what they need. And I pray that I will be a blessing, open to the ways I can help. If someone in a relationship needs to change, I try to offer to be the one changed for the healing and flourishing of the relationship.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no so-called prayer warrior. My prayer life is full of starts and stops, stumbles and wondering off topic and of course, selfish requests. I still find it easy to pray the “fix them” pray. In no way do I intend to hold myself up as a good example. In fact, if I were to be honest, this post is more for me than for you.
But even though I’m mostly writing for myself this week. I’d like to know, what do you think?
One thought on “Useless Prayer”
Great post re. prayer isn’t like some kinda fix-it glue.