When Prayer Feels Empty

Photo by Carlos 90, via Flickr

I seem to be collecting a lot of prayer intentions lately. Not that there’s anything strange about that–it’s just that for some reason, recently they seem to be hitting a lot closer to home. In times past, I used to promise to pray and then forget all about it. (Yes, I was one of those people, I’m sorry to admit.) Eventually I learned when someone requested prayers, I had to stop whatever I was doing and pray then and there.

But these days, it seems I can’t get these people out of my mind. At odd times during the day I surface from the depths of my own affairs with a heaviness in my chest, a heaviness surrounding a name or two.

We are urged to be specific and forward in our prayers–in other words, to expect miracles. But I’ve grown suspicious of this kind of prayer. The longer I live, the more I see the value of the process. I believe God can work massive, instantaneous change, but most often He doesn’t…because there is value to the process, to the change wrought in us that would not happen if we were miraculously and instantly rescued from suffering.

So for the past several weeks, I’ve prayed for healing from my lingering ear infection, from the leftover fluid and hearing loss…but with no expectation that it will vanish overnight, despite a friend’s prayer for exactly that. Maybe that shows lack of faith. But on the other hand, through this process I’ve learned empathy for the elderly as they are slowly robbed of their hearing–a lesson I would not have gained otherwise. This experience reaffirms a different approach to prayer–one that focuses on grace to endure, on strength and understanding instead of relief from pain. Change my heart, this time. That, after all, is the purpose of prayer: not to force God to do our will, but to open our minds and hearts to accept God’s. I’ve learned to stop asking God to “fix it,” and to ask instead for the grace to accept what is. To say, “What do you want me to learn from this, Lord?”

But it’s one thing to embrace the search for wisdom and insight through suffering in myself. It’s altogether different to try to philosophize away someone else’s pain. I pray grace and strength and insight for them, too…but mostly I beg God to identify a quick exit from their suffering. And the words seem empty. Isn’t a pithy “Lord, please (fill in the blank)” just a pious platitude unless I put action behind it? Shouldn’t I seek some way to ease a friend’s suffering?

I’ve never wished I had Godlike powers so much as when I hear pain and confusion in the voices of those I care about. Yet the reality is that I have no control at all. I can’t heal broken bodies or broken relationships. I can’t remove the circumstances of another’s suffering.

So I pray, recognizing that only God has the answers. And maybe that’s the point, after all: that hurting with those who hurt binds me not only to them, but to God.

(Sharing with Michelle’s community on week one of focusing on the pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.)