Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies that the best prayers she knows are “Help me help me help me” and “Thank you thank you thank you." Both are nicer than holding God -- or anyone else -- hostage to your desires.
Five years ago, I had a religious epiphany:
I’d been praying wrong.
To be clear, no one TOLD me I was praying wrong. It’s not as though there was a formula and I was following it incorrectly. I wasn’t attending church, either, so no one observed me praying and gave me some pointers on my poor form. It was more of a nagging sensation, a thought that kept repeating: I think I’m doing this wrong.
What I was doing, you see, was asking for outcomes. Things that I wanted, like God was Santa Claus and I was compiling a list: Make my husband want to stay. Fix my friend who is sick. Make my job better.
Dear God, I want I want I want.
For the record, when I was younger and attending church, we were taught to go to God and ask Him for things. If we didn’t get the things we asked for, the explanation was generally this: Well, it wasn’t God’s will.
I found this to be a very inadequate explanation.
Why would you teach me to rely on God and ask for things – not selfish things, like a pony, but healing and helping and hoping – and then tell me that it was TOTALLY SENSIBLE if the Big Guy didn’t come through? THIS WAS NOT OKAY! This was why I didn’t ask actual, physical PEOPLE for things – they let you down! They back out at the last minute! It’s better to do for yourself than to count on other people!
(It should probably be noted that I have an exceptionally wide independent streak.)
But I kept DOING it – the praying and asking Santa God – and then finding that well, He might not be into what I was asking for:
Husbands would leave.
Friends would die.
My job would suck.
Even though I asked for something else entirely.
As you can imagine, this caused some issues with an already damaged faith. For a while, I decided that screw it, I was done. Someone ELSE could talk to the Big Cheese. I was through.
What eventually happened was this: stripped of regular religious instruction and affiliation to any one denomination, I started to think about the issue of “God’s Will” more from a perspective of fate. It’s not my fate to still be married to my ex husband. It was someone’s destiny to have to pass away when she did. It necessary to have the sucktastic job in order to move to the next step in my career. These things had to happen.
So what was the point in praying for them NOT to?
I was doing it wrong. My prayers to Santa God were incorrect. I was asking for the wrong kinds of things.
When I pray now, I don’t pray for outcomes. The outcomes will be what they are based on whatever you want to call it – you can call it fate, or the will of the Almighty, or karma, or whatever you want. And maybe, you don’t pray to a defined God. Maybe you don’t even believe in God. Perhaps you find yourself looking anyway, asking the universe or Allah or whoever or whatever you have faith in, talking to that energy or spirit or deity, conversing and communing. I call it prayer. You can call it whatever you want.
Just don’t treat it like it’s Santa Claus.
What I do instead is this: I pray for understanding. I pray for grace in difficult situations. I ask for courage. I hang on to my hope that I can make a difference. I don’t depend on God to fix things. I depend on myself to behave the best I can – even when it’s hard, even when it makes me sad – knowing I’m doing all I can.
Sometimes, I even succeed.