Prayer Experiment 1: Fear of Prayer is Fear of Pain

There’s some profanity in this one. So you’ve been warned. Also, this is not some kind of call for reassurance or that kind of thing. It is a post to myself, and I’m not even sure I’ll click [Publish Post].

The topic for this post has been rattling around in my head for a few weeks now. It occurred to me during the Multicultural Conference as my mind was, honestly, wandering a little at some point.

I often reflect to myself that I am not good at many of the things that are usually associated with Christianity. I am not a naturally trusting person. I think it has to do with going through abuse as a kid and adolescent and having a few hard knocks since. Nothing extraordinary, and at this point mostly reconciled, but breaches in trust when you’re very young just stay with you a lot longer than you’d think, and they come up in strange and disturbing ways.

I am also not naturally very hopeful. I am a pessimist. I hedge my bets. I always, always plan for the worst. If you ask me what I will do if something goes wrong, I’ve got at least three or four answers off the top of my head, because I’ve been obsessively thinking about it long before you even thought to ask. This could be connected to childhood issues as well. Also, to be honest, some things have gone wrong severely enough in my life that those worst-case-scenario plans actually had to be put into action. My life has been easier than most people’s lives, I definitely realize that, but there have been times that it has been as hard as I could possibly stand without absolutely breaking down.

I also don’t pray very often. I’ve said in the past that I pray publicly as part of pastoral ministry and other than that I pray as an act of desperation. I pray shipwrecked, stranded, hopeless, lost prayers when all else fails me. This is partly a habit from when I though that you should never pray when instead you could act. I’ve gotten past that view since to see value in prayer itself…I just don’t do it very often.

What occurred to me is that, to a large degree, I don’t pray because it is so painful to do so most of the time. When I’m leading prayer or praying as part of a worship service, I am caught up in the moment, and my thoughts of the other people gathered there, and so the pain is dulled, but it still comes out in what I say when I’m not scripted. But by myself, if I pray honestly, it is incredibly painful.

I mention not being a trusting person and not being a hopeful person because those definitely play into this problem. There are two other things that I have identified as well in my reflection (and there has been a huge amount in my life for a while now on this topic). Those two things are grief and fear.

The grief comes most strongly when I try to make any kind of intercessory prayer. I just…I feel the weight of tragedy and horrible things going on in the world very deeply and viscerally. I have been profoundly re-sensitized by my spiritual life and my service to the Church and my study of scripture and my life in different communities. All of those statistics that we gloss over so glibly have kept me awake in the past with anguish and still do. The idea that we are destroying hundreds of species, so that they are gone forever without even a trace in many cases, every year, is devastating. It attains the level of unimaginable tragedy in my mind – beautiful things I believe were created by God which we destroy wantonly and thoughtlessly. And they will never be back. Good things of God’s world that we will never, ever get back.

I read about what we’re doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, what we have done in the past in so many dozens of places to millions of innocent people, and I feel a deep shame and a creeping horror that I cannot escape or wash off. That is the weight of sin that I feel most deeply – that horrible things are being done and I have not done everything in my power to prevent them. And I can’t. I don’t have the energy or the strength. I have so much to worry about just wondering where I will live in two months or how I will afford to live, or whether my wife will get to start work again, and in the meantime how do we pay our bills? I do little paltry things like this stupid blog and my stupid little letters and occasional volunteering (God I wish I had more time) and tiny donations that I can’t afford and its pathetic and shameful that this is all I do.

There is no way I can make any kind of accounting for my life. None whatsoever. I cannot even begin to think of how I would find my life acceptable in any theological or moral sense. I’ve got nothing. And I grieve for the terrible things that wound the world that I cannot stop, and I grieve at my own shameful failure to do more, to do something, anything more than I am doing.

This transitions well into my point about fear. I fear that I will be convicted if I dare to pray for very long, that my petty hypocrisies will be brought to light and will be made starkly visible. That I do not do enough to love my enemies. That I do not do enough to end violence against the helpless which my taxes pay for and my silence empowers. That I do not do enough to care for God’s creation. That I am too much a slave to the shit that I buy with money I earn doing a job that just feeds the machinery one hour, one transaction at a time. That I do not do enough to represent Christ to the people in my life. That I am too quick to anger and too long to forgive. That I let fear and anxiety control me. Over and over and over. One thing after another.

I always wonder what I am doing here. I know what I am doing here, and I also have no idea what I am doing here. You’re supposed to get things you deserve. Right? That’s what Job’s friends said, and they seem like smart guys. You are supposed to have earned what you have. Good things are a reward and bad things are a punishment. Right? So then how is it that I am being rewarded?

Partly it is the bare, terrible fact that I benefit from injustice and I let it happen. I can justify this to myself any number of ways, and God knows I do, but it is in the end unjustifiable. If I had any integrity whatsoever, I would never dare to spend money to go to seminary while a single human being was starving, or living in oppression, or dying from diseases borne by polluted drinking water. If I had any integrity, I would not be here. I only have a bare, reckless hope that having gone here, I can do more good than otherwise. That very much remains to be seen.

So I don’t have integrity. That can’t be what I am being rewarded for by having these opportunities. And we’ve covered the fact that I am untrusting and unhopeful, that I am moved to grief and shame when I consider who I am, that I am driven by fear to hypocrisy and a flinching hesitancy.

But then again – dammit – then again, there have been things that have happened, which have made it possible for me to stay here, when there are only the most feeble explanations for them, desperate grasping for things like lucky coincidence…deep down, below where I usually know things, I sense that this is God. This is God saying “you selfish jerk, I want you right where you are. And I am going to make you depend on me if it kills you.”

And it almost has. And it might yet.

And shit. I’m backed into a corner, have been backed into a corner a few times while I’ve been here, where my wife and I have just looked at each other, and usually started to cry a little, or a lot, in relief, and thought what is going on? This isn’t supposed to happen. How did this happen?

[And this is one big reason why I cannot accept penal substitutionary atonement. If God must punish, then God cannot possibly punish enough. But when the time came, God chose not to punish at all, not even to fight back when we in our insanity chose to punish God in our midst, to torture and execute the eternal Word for the sake of our fear and hysteria and arrogance. God is the one who accepts unjust punishment from us, and who, in love, refuses to mete out just punishment that we have long had coming. That is why this God is different, to me at least. This is why this God is actually God. Because this God’s grace is so huge that it shatters our concepts of what justice is, what punishment means, what we deserve; all of it lies in ruin on the floor in pieces, and God is still standing there, brushing the last bits of our notions of punishment and reward from God’s hands, saying “Now we are done with that.”]

But I digress. I have decided to take up an experiment, in light of all the things I’ve typed above, which are not new realizations at all. This experiment is going to seem paltry and elementary to most of you – a real no-brainer – but it is big to me. And if you want to make comments to that end, frankly, expect them to be deleted.

The experiment is: I will pray for a set amount of time every day. I will pray about all of these horrible things that I see going on around me, in intercessory prayers which are by far the most painful for me to pray. I will pray on behalf of the many people I know well who are suffering. I will pray on my own behalf, for all of the things that I lack. I will then see what happens. If I feel inclined, I will post about it.

That’s the plan.

8 thoughts on “Prayer Experiment 1: Fear of Prayer is Fear of Pain

  1. Wow. Thank God for grace, eh?Seminary (and most of life, for that matter) can easily drain the soul. While challenging perspective, seminary can also undermine it with complexity. Your experiment may be elementary, but it certainly isn’t paltry. It’s an honest attempt to be radical, in the true sense of the word radical. Simplicity is one of the roots of faith.I was going through a really crappy time at one point in seminary and I spoke with my faculty advisor about it. She offered to ask for prayers on my behalf from a Benedictine convent where she sometimes went on retreat. I agreed. I’ll never forget what she said next:<>“Lean into the prayers of the Church.”<>That affected me profoundly. I had a vision of the Church, “militant and triumphant”, praying for me. That vision gave me the strength to join the Church in prayer, to add to the cosmic compassion and resolve into which so many need to lean in order to survive, to face the pain of caring.I believe that simple, humble prayer has power. That power, imo, is the Spirit of God at work moving, resting, nudging, pruning, cleansing, healing, encouraging, warning, guiding, shaping, loving. Some prayers incarnate into action. Others remain intangible, but are felt quite strongly. The Spirit uses prayer in its many forms to influence life.Doug, lean into the prayers of the Church; join in the prayers of the Church. Personally, I need a resurrection of prayer in my life. With your permission, I’d like to join in your experiment.Yours in Christ,Mark


  2. Doug,I wish you well in this challenge. I think that there is some value in the discipline of simply praying every day. For some strange reason, I find it difficult to maintain consistancy in my prayer life also. Again, I hope that this is a good experience for you.If you need a list of stuff to pray for I’ll give you mine 🙂Craig


  3. Craig:Thanks, but my roster of intercessory prayers is well into the hundreds, so I’m not sure I can handle more at this point.So far, it continues to be a painful experience, but I suppose at the very least I’ll become accustomed to the feeling given time.


  4. Doug;There is a blessing in facing your fears. There is strength in admitting weakness. There is grace in stillness. As a mother I wanted to enfold you and reassure you. But, not being your mother, and being half a world away, I am left to simply give a bit of motherly advice.I would advise that you pray in a place you find beautiful. If your corporeal body is comforted by its surroundings, the psychic pain will be, if not lessened, than at least not aggravated by physical discomfort. For me it is the outdoors – the beauty of God’s creation that provides that comfort.Try prayer without words. God, afterall, can decipher emotion. Deliver up your whole feeling on the subject, unfiltered, complicated, messy. Then listen for God’s understanding. Like a Mother there would be soothing noises, a drying of the tears, a murmured ‘I know sweetheart, it’s ok, just let it out.’ The funny thing with prayer is that we humans often don’t listen for God’s response, or accept her comfort.With Love!Aric’s Mama


  5. Thank you for the kind comment. I think I’m going to stick to spoken prayer – I’m too accustomed to silent meditation for it to have the effect that I’m going for. Its too easy and familiar a fall-back position.So far I haven’t been having that much comfort. I haven’t been doing this for very long either, so we’ll see. Also this has been a bad few weeks for anything, prayer included.Again, thank you.


  6. Doug,Would love to have regular updates as to how this is going for you. Also, I have found that spoken prayer helps me to focus more than silent prayer. The other thing that I have found helpful is posture (kneeling) helps me to focus and block out distractions.


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