Recently I heard sad news from someone I know too well to call an acquaintance and not quite well enough to call a good friend. When I heard this news my heart ached, and I wished peace and consolation onto this person. In short, I prayed.
But I couldn’t say that I was praying. Saying “I’ll pray for you” comes with a lot of baggage.
We all know those people for whom “I’ll pray for you” is malicious code for “you are a hot mess right now and need divine intervention” We’ve heard prayer offered as an insult or a manipulation. We’ve seen other people of prayer be publically mean-spirited, giving all of us a bad name.
I’m not sure I know what prayer is. What if someone asked me what I meant when I said I was praying? How would I describe this ineffable offering of another person to the love that runs the universe? And if I used those words, wouldn’t I sound a little bit dotty? I like to rail against throwaway words, and I don’t want expressions of love through prayer to become overused in my own vocabulary.
The truth is, prayer is what I’m doing, often and every day. It has been for a long time, even if I don’t know how to describe it or how it works, even if I worry what it makes me look like. I’m a wacky, open-minded, ambitious, loud-mouthed extrovert, the kind of person in whom deep religious conviction is often seen as surprising. Sometimes it is easier to keep it all under wraps.
Am I being pastoral by not using a term that might give someone the wrong impression, or am I being a coward by not saying what I really believe?I’m torn between wanting to play the game by not using the culturally-loaded term, and wanting to be honest. I’m tired of telling people that they’re in my thoughts when I know that my care for them is much more intense than that.
Do you tell people you’re praying for them? Do you worry about what they will think of you when you do?
I’m very curious to read your thoughts.
Loafingcactus Mary says
I’m not really into intercessory prayer. If I use “I’m praying for you” it is because it is language that I think they will appreciate.
As an atheist who is learning some humility and compassion by embracing Unitarian Universalism my views on “I will pray for you” are evolving. There was a day when i sincerely believed it to be an insult. Not just the “you are a hot mess and I hope that you are touched by the divine to fix you” that you mention. But also a veiled “you are a godless heathen and I think you needs to find yo’self some Jesus”. While i still think there is some of either of those sentiments (or both) in SOME people when they say “i will pray for you”. I no longer think it is the norm. Even as an atheist i feel the desire to focus my thoughts on someone who i know is in a time of crisis. I am not entirely sure what it does or what it means. But i do feel the act of taking some time to really think and reflect on someone who you know and care about who is struggling is a really good thing. Not just for the selfish reason that it makes me feel better. But for the reason that I think it will improve how i interact with that person and how i can be a better friend/family member to them. Anyways now when someone says “i will pray for you” i try to assume that they feel that same desire to focus their thoughts on me and that that will bring us closer to each other.
Clark Roush, Ph.D. says
Felice – I use that phrase in all sincerity, hoping the person to whom it is directed will know and believe that. Sometimes they are in a place in their life when they either can’t pray or don’t want to. They still need someone imploring the Father in their behalf. Prayer is one of my life anchors. If others can hold on to my anchor – I’m ok with that. If they don’t take that phrase the way I mean it, it doesn’t negate my ability to still ask God to work in their life/heart, or God’s ability to hear me and work. I completely understand what you’re saying – I hope others understand what I mean.
If I’m praying for someone, like actively praying, I’ll let them know. If I’m praying for someone who does not believe in God or the power of prayer, I’ll tell them I’m keeping them close to my heart. (Note: I’m not praying for them in an evangelistic way.) I often pray throughout the day for many people and many things. It’s become a way of life, so that I don’t often notice when someone comes to mind and my thoughts turn to prayer. Praying is not my area of gifting so I don’t know that I could ever say what my prayers entail. So often I don’t know what to say. The last few years, more than anything else, they fall along the lines of “Lord, have mercy.”
Alan Rudnick says
There there are different between, “I’m praying for you” and “I’ll pray for you”?
Sam Sawyer, SJ says
I do tend to say, “I’ll pray for you”; I think I tend to get off more easily on the proselytization problem because people expect a member of religious order to say something like that. But I sometimes worry that it gets heard as code for “You’re in my thoughts,” which is itself code for “I know this is difficult and I don’t know what else to say, but I need to move on to something else.”
As for what it does mean: usually not that I’m asking God to change something, but that I’m holding the person and situation in heart and mind before God. I think the closest analogue is sitting at the bedside of someone who’s sick, or staying up with a friend who’s had bad news and isn’t ready to be alone — you hold that person in love before God to whom all things are present, and are present there with them.
One way to understand this is (the peculiarly Catholic?) “offering it up”: the time spent in prayer is a sacrifice made for the sake of the other, in the economy of suffering and compassion in which God himself participates. Another way is simply that suffering shared is — for whatever reason — often easier to bear.
I think there’s need, of course, for a pastoral sensitivity toward what people actually hear when we say “I’m praying for you” — but those are probably limited cases. If we really mean it, then what we’re saying when we pray for someone is “I don’t know what’s going to happen, or whether anything will change, but I’m going to entrust God with it.” If we’re bold enough to do that, and think that God actually has something to do with it, then we should trust God to have something to do with how “I’m praying for you” gets heard as well.
Loved this line, Felice, because it’s just plain good advice: “I like to rail against throwaway words, and I don’t want expressions of love through prayer to become overused in my own vocabulary.”
I tell people I’m praying for them all the time, but only if I am. I figure prayer is part of how I live, and if someone else misunderstands what I mean by it that’s no different from the fact that people misunderstand a lot of things about me. That’s ok, I misunderstand a lot about them too.
Of course, when it comes to misunderstanding spirital matters people can get their undies in a twist a bit more easily – and believe me, twisted undies can be really uncomfortable! – but that’s just an opportunity to get to know each other better, really.
P.S. Thanks for popping by my place today.
Thanks back at you. I loved your piece on SCL and am happy to have connected.