“I’m praying for you.” From the time Sarah was born over six years ago, I’ve heard these four words countless times. They’ve been said with pity, concern, sincerity, and discomfort. They’ve been spoken by close family and total strangers. At first, I was flattered, even touched, by the thought that so many people were thinking of our family and praying for us. But now, the words have grown stale.
There are two basic reasons I believe saying “I’m praying for you” can be a cop-out. I’m in no way saying that prayer is meaningless or pointless, or that we shouldn’t tell others we are praying for them. To many, these words bring comfort. However, they’ve become cliched, almost like the sunny spirituality of “everything happens for a reason.” Both of these sentiments are often shared during times of grief or when extreme trials come our way, which is why I’d like to reflect a bit on what I believe is really going on.
Filling the Void
First, people are not comfortable with pain and suffering. Even well-intentioned Christians do not know what to say when someone expresses deep-seated agony. Not long ago, I broke down in front of a small group of close friends while we were sharing some highs and lows about our lives. I’ve known them for nearly ten years, and they are all women of great faith whom I trust greatly. But my heaves and sobs were too much for a few of them.
One interrupted me. “Jeannie!” she exclaimed. “It’s okay. Calm down. I believe in the power of prayer. We are all praying for you.” Well, I believe in the power of prayer, too. But in this case, as it seems in many others, the words are spoken to fill a void. It is easier to say “I’m praying for you” than to be moved to truly accompany another person, which leads me to my next point.
Faith and Works, Prayer and Works
When is prayer not enough? It’s a difficult question to answer, because most Christians believe that prayer is more than sufficient to help someone on their journey. To illustrate my point using scripture, let’s revisit a common verse often used to refute the Sola Fides argument from our Protestant friends:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.– James 2: 14-18
We can liken the comment above about a Christian who means well and tells a person suffering in terrible poverty “I wish you well,” to the comment, “I’ll pray for you.” Prayer is not a substitute for works. It is necessary, important, and vital to the Christian’s life and relationship with God. But it is not enough when our brothers and sisters are in pain.
Putting Prayer Into Action
In my experience having a daughter with a severe, complex disability, there are many occasions when one needs far more than prayers or good thoughts or well wishes. I have been in seasons with Sarah’s condition when I was desperate for babysitting, meals after surgeries, house cleaning, even just companionship and a listening ear. And, yes, I have reached out to those closest to me with these needs, but many times the reply is, “I wish I could help, but…”
And it is usually followed by, “I’m so sorry. I will keep you in my prayers.” It feels like the man who was robbed and beaten, passed by the priest and Levite. Ignored. Overlooked. Pitied. The only compassion was from a Samaritan, who finally acknowledged the man’s plight and responded to it.
Isn’t this what the Works of Mercy are about? There are times in life when prayer is more powerful than anything else, particularly when nothing can be done — as in when someone is sick or dying. But there are other occasions when we need to allow the Holy Spirit to move us beyond ourselves, our busy lives, our comfortable emotions and respond to the very real, very jarring needs of those who are economically or spiritually poor.
Prayer can accompany the gift of our time. But it is no substitute for a warm, home-cooked meal after surgery or an hour spent over tea or coffee, just listening. It cannot compare to the power of a hug or a gift basket or an impromptu announcement that you have a reprieve for two hours to do as you wish — nap, take a walk, etc.
If we truly wish to be Christians, then our faith and works must be cohesive, unified. They operate in tandem, not separately. Prayer ignites the spark for us to assist those who need something we have to offer, and when we love our neighbor we, in turn, love God more deeply and return to prayer every day. It is a cycle of hearts, one leading to another.