I don’t think I have a normal reaction to prayer requests. Rather than making me want to go pray, they tend to edge me towards hyperventilation.
Take the other day in my small group. There were some doozy requests. People suffering from the death of a spouse, cancer, job loss, financial holes, a risky and possibly terrible job change, and the general confusion and chaos of everyday life.
When people share prayer requests, here is what normal people do: They write down the prayer requests, and later they go and pray using the list. That is what prayer requests are for.
Here is what I do with prayer requests: I write them down, get stressed about praying for them, and then I put them in the trash.
That day, I jotted a list down on the back of my small group discussion sheet because:
- Writing helps me focus.
- Sometimes I volunteer to close in prayer, and need the list to remember everything.
- It makes me look holy and compassionate.
But I knew I’d toss them later, because otherwise the requests would stress me out.
Why I Put Prayer Requests in the Trash
I actually enjoy and long for prayer, but usually liturgical prayers or silent prayers. Prayer requests overwhelm me.
The requests feel like a giant stack of cordwood I’m supposed to balance in my arms. People have a lot of requests, because life is hard and full of suffering. So I add cordwood to the top of the pile until I look like a cartoon character with a snaking pile of wood in their arms who is about to get hit in the face with a tumbling load of very heavy logs.
This did not seem like a healthy spiritual discipline.
About five years ago, I decided to stop holding onto prayer requests. I just cannot carry them without going a little crazy. So I either pray for people immediately, or I let the request float past me, asking God to handle it.
Anyhow, the prayer requests that day were so raw and needful that my anxious coping mechanism of letting them go after writing them down felt really chickenshit. Like really chickenshit. Why could I not muster up the empathy and self-discipline to pray for these people during the week? Why bother to write them down at all if I was not going to pray?
Note: I was doing a lot of this anxious back-and-forthing while people were praying. If there’s anything worse than deciding NOT to pray for people it’s arguing with yourself about it while ACTUAL PRAYER IS TAKING PLACE.
By the time prayer ended, I felt really lousy about myself and my prayer life. I tried to remember if I’d even prayed at all the last week for someone other than myself. Maybe I had lost my tether to God and the Holy Spirit. Maybe I was stuck in a morass of self-deception and self-involvement.
You can’t just throw away prayer requests. What the hell was I thinking, taking my spiritual life so cavalierly?
For a few days I felt crappy about myself, sort of like the headache you get when you overindulge. Just your garden-variety self-loathing hangover, you know. No biggie.
What Cured My Self-Loathing Hangover
Days passed. And then one afternoon I opened my email.
The details need to stay confidential, but basically, someone asked our family to take a bold step of faith towards something good but hard. And I looked at the email, and I felt a flash of panic and fear (‘cause it was a doozy of a step), but also this fierce determination that if my family agreed, we’d do it.
Deep in my marrow, I knew saying yes was the right thing to do. I knew that Jesus could provide resources if our yes opened a door.
The fierce firmness of that moment, the absolute stinking clarity, kicked out the self-loathing hangover like a good night’s rest and a tall drink of water.
Why? Because I viscerally felt God’s call and provision without trying. I had been worrying about how many minutes I prayed, and whether it was enough. Yet without me doing anything, God was present and powerful when I needed him, calling me into deeper waters of engagement and love.
That email helped me remember that our very lives can be prayers, not because we’re super-cool, but because Jesus is omnipotent and omnipresent.
Life can be prayer if Jesus helps me.
My self-loathing was an utter distraction from that prayerful lived reality. And seeing that hard email, I knew I just did NOT have the luxury of keeping self-loathing around. Kerpow, I thought, and kicked it to the curb like the empty can it was.
I Made a God Out of Anxiety
I have spent all of my life as a Jesus-follower struggling with anxiety about my faith, wondering whether I’m following Jesus correctly, or eagerly enough, or with enough enthusiasm.
That was a bad lie, but here is the worse one. I thought my anxiety about faith was helping me.
I thought my eager desire to please and cross every T of faith would help me deserve Jesus.
I assumed if I was anxious about prayer, it meant I would pray more fiercely.
I believed if I felt terrible about my service, it meant I would work harder.
I felt sure if I harshly critiqued my worship or my quiet times, I’d draw closer to God.
I thought anxiety and self-loathing were like whips for my lazy ass. If I stopped being anxious, or let go of self-loathing, I’d never get anything accomplished for Christ.
I could not let go of anxiety and self-loathing because I thought they were keeping me good.
Do you see that that is not actually Christ-centric theology? Do you see how I was turning my anxiety and self-hatred into a god?
My Prayer Life is Not a Show Pony
The day I got that big-ask email, I remembered that anxiety and self-loathing do NOT draw me closer to Jesus, and that love and invitation and joy do. I remembered that I don’t have to make my spiritual life look good. I JUST HAVE TO LIVE IT.
I really used to think that feeling anxious and terrible about my spiritual life would make me a better Christian, but it just made me feel anxious and terrible.
That meant that my work-around of praying in the moment for prayer requests was totally okay. Dropping a list of prayer requests in the trash is also okay. I could write the names as a kind of prayer, and consider the trash as a God Box a la Anne Lamott (just spitballin’ here). No matter how lame I am, I know every need is firmly in God’s hands.
My prayer life is not a show pony in need of grooming. Instead, it is like one of those amazing aides that comes alongside a disabled kid in their classroom, helping them get through the day. I desperately need Someone competent to help me do adulting basics.
I’m not the lynchpin of my faith. Neither is my anxiety. Jesus is.
It says in Matthew that Jesus came across a crowd of people, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
I am part of that crowd. So are you. And Jesus has compassion for both of us.
It is His love and attention we need, not our self-harassment. And thank God he’s there to give us the peace we are dying for.