By Laura Rector
A conservative Christian man “prayerfully” spanks his spouse as Christian “discipline.” A Christian institution “prays” for those who lose their jobs in a restructuring. A Christian employer uses prayer to promote going along with an agenda, rather than their employees flourishing. A church “prays” for people they push out of their community — whether it is a homeless person or a single mother.
If we spend any time among Christians, it won’t be long until we run into people who hurt or until we run into people who hurt others. Can prayer at times be yet another tool we use to cause pain, rather than healing? Can prayer be a way of evading our sin, rather than repenting and dealing with it? Can prayer be a form of abuse, rather than a means of transformation?
Please don’t get me wrong. Prayer is a powerful Christian discipline. Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4). He also prayed just before and during his crucifixion (John 17; Matt. 26:36ff; Luke 23:34). Prayer is a gift from God.
However, I also think there are some occasions when our well-intentioned prayers can be a cover for our own sins, if not abuse — whether sins of commission like a man abusing his wife as a “spiritual” practice or sins of omission like failing to help those in poverty or show love to those who make us uncomfortable. Prayer makes us feel better about poverty or the other person’s circumstances, yet we use it to rationalize inaction and cover over injustice or a lack of charity. In the case of the abusive spouse, prayer can be a tool to justify the abuse and spiritualize something that is in no way God’s will.
Something is wrong when we use prayer to make ourselves feel better without being moved to change the situation. Something is wrong when we simultaneously marginalize others — even violently harming them — and also “pray” for them in an effort to evade our sin. Such prayers are as empty as those offered by pagans “babbling,” because “they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). Essentially, we are taking God’s name in vain, and Scripture promises, “the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exod. 20:7).
Jesus most certainly taught us to pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:44), but Jesus never said to basically use prayer to act like an enemy and simultaneously inflict suffering while praying. Prayer is never supposed to be a substitute for direct care or a tool for justifying affliction on the part of an oppressor.
When I faced being legally homeless for the summer due to a planned development (and despite working), well-intentioned, kind-hearted Christians prayed for me, but very few Christians offered practical care along with their prayers even when it was within their power to change or improve the circumstances. Indeed, some of the same people who prayed also unfortunately (although in many ways unintentionally) created the circumstances. To be fair, how many times has my own heart been callous in a world that screams with need? How many times have I been too busy? How many times have I been blind or unintentionally inflicted harm on others?
When a young, newly Christian, single mother with kids could not quickly and easily extract herself from a domestic partnership, she was pushed out of her church. While I strongly advocate a covenant, sexual ethic that reserves sex as a gift for marriage, I also advocate the Christian virtues of patience and presence when people are struggling. What if the church had patiently waited and helped her process and remove herself from the situation, giving her a way forward? The partner battered her and her children, and the church basically abandoned her to that situation. At the same time, I’m sure the same Christians who kicked her out of their fellowship also prayed for her. What value are prayers without love, presence and the patience to help someone? Were our own transformations always instantaneous?
At other times, we may feel called to do things that cause others and ourselves pain even if it not a clear case of us sinning — like when an institution has to lay off someone. Perhaps in such cases, we should be praying for our community and the people harmed. On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn’t parade those prayers in public or in front of the person as we simultaneously harm them. Intertwining spiritual practices with the direct pain caused by our actions has the potential to further damage someone already hurting enough.
At the very least, we should recognize that the situation requires extreme sensitivity and care that we are ourselves may not be in the best position to offer unless we are prepared to match such prayers with sacrificially taking the person’s place (which is likely impossible under most institutions’ rules) or find another creative way to mitigate the pain inflicted by the circumstances with practical assistance.
As Christians — as children of God — we have the gift of unlimited access to our Abba Father who graciously hears us (Rom. 8:15). However, we must not mislabel actions that are really self-seeking and a cover for harming others as “prayer,” distorting this beautiful, gracious gift from our Lord.