By Cassi Cox
Prayer and worship tend to be much different experiences for me than they are for those I share community with. It’s taken some time for me to recognize that this difference affects how I engage in faith-based community and the trust that I develop with other members of my community regarding my faith. For me, prayer and worship are God-given gifts that open the communication floodgates. Prayer and worship provide opportunities for me to listen to God. They allow me to speak to God, and tell God all of the things I appreciate, admire, crave, and feel. Prayer and worship are all about relationship for me.
It’s easy, however, for the church to turn prayer and worship into a marketing technique. After all, people have needs, and often those needs are not just physical. Depression, anxiety, PTSD. Addiction, grief, and generational cycles of trauma. When we are in the midst of the pain and in recovery, we just want to feel better. It hurts. We’re stuck. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and has our best interests in mind, right? And scripture tells us to ask…so it is often much easier to default to a position of “ask and you will be given,” rather than “seek and you will find,” forgetting that both of these statements are interwoven together in Scripture (Matthew 7: 7-8).
We literally call the space in which we gather together at church “the sanctuary,” defined as “a place for people to retreat into safety and refuge.” The church should be safe. It should be a retreat, an oasis, a shelter from the world at large. In well-intentioned efforts to provide that safety and refuge, we often offer instant gratification for those in pain within our walls, without considering their needs, their desires, their lives, and most importantly, God’s ultimate purpose.
It is this well-intentioned effort that leads congregations to put songs in their worship sets, week after week, with lyrics like, “I just wanna speak the name of Jesus ‘Til every dark addiction starts to break…I just wanna speak the name of Jesus.Over fear and all anxiety. To every soul held captive by depression. I speak Jesus..”
Lyrics like this draw in the most vulnerable, exploiting their mental health and promising instant gratification and relief from something that affects them every day of their lives. It offers them something that they are not likely to get, which has the capacity to breed resentment at God, the church community, and themselves. After all, while these types of miracles do happen and God CAN do anything, they are considered miracles because they are rare.
We do this with prayer as well. It is this well-intentioned effort that fills our prayer request logs with requests for miraculous intervention and healing, but significantly fewer requests for hope, inspiration, long-suffering, wisdom, and love. If we pray enough, if we pray the right way, if we pray collectively, consistently, etc. then God will do what WE want and need from God. We choose the intervention, the means, and the methods, and then we use prayer as a way to feel as if we are still in control. This makes prayer about us, our demands, and our desires and not about God. Often, the demands we make in prayer are not even on our behalf. We enter into prayer declaring to God what God needs to do for and about other people in their lives. We know best, after all, right? We use prayer, a gift from God to allow us to draw closer to and communicate with God, as a way to assert and insert ourselves, elevating ourselves and maintaining our own illusion of control. We demand instant gratification from God on our terms. Heal our sick loved ones, eliminate depression, eradicate anxiety, and replace addiction with a desire and drive to provide for one’s family. We believe that we know best. These solutions that we offer up to the Lord, beating down the doors of Heaven to demand to be made a reality, are the answers we, in all of our worldly knowledge, know will be best for everyone.
This is not to say that God does not perform miracles. God does. I believe in miracles with the entirety of my being. My entire life is evidence of miraculous intervention. God didn’t intervene in my life by erasing my traumatic memories and every neuropathway associated with my trauma responses. That would be absurd anyway because it would mean erasing my entire childhood. He didn’t eradicate the addictions that were central to my childhood trauma, or even erase their evidence. Again, this would involve the erasure of people’s entire existence and impacts on the world. Prayer can be a beautiful gift, allowing us to draw closer to and better understand God, and yet, we have commercialized it. We’ve turned it into something else entirely, centering what we can get and how quickly we can get it.
We pray for this instant gratification and relief because it’s the easiest and quickest path forward. If all the hard, messy, complicated, traumatic aspects of people’s lives are erased, then we don’t have to be trauma-informed. We don’t have to adapt, change or adjust. We don’t have to reflect upon how our actions and decisions impact the most vulnerable around us…after all, God will just make them un-vulnerable so that we don’t have to do anything! “Lord, please heal my friend from her depression/anxiety/ptsd/trauma/abuse. She’s now jumpy and fearful. She’s slow to trust and I just don’t know what to do.”
Maybe, dear friend, rather than instant healing of your friend, God is inviting you to stretch. To grow. Maybe, just maybe, this is an invitation for you to learn more about being like Jesus. And maybe, as you do, your ability to love and serve will become contagious, and maybe, your friend’s recovery will thrive in the context of community. Maybe, just maybe, this is what God means by “bring Heaven to Earth.”
True worship requires no manipulation or demands. It is a celebration of the beautiful relationship we share with the Creator of the universe. True prayer centers on the relationship that we get to have as we connect with God, and God dwells within us.
And miracles? Miracles happen all the time, we just choose not to notice them because the miracles don’t make everyone’s lives easier and don’t have a huge performance impact. There are miracles in the mundane moments.
When I reflect upon my life, it’s a miracle that I learned to love. It’s a miracle that I survived the physical abuses of my childhood. It’s a miracle that I survived the summer I spent trying to die by suicide. My children and my motherhood are miracles. My friendships and marriage are miracles. My career and the way in which I can work in substance use disorder productively is a miracle. What a gift from the Lord, to be able to give other families the intervention I pray God will provide to those I love. I get to be used by God as an answer to other families’ prayers.
What a miracle.
May is mental health awareness month. As the collective Christian church, representing and reflecting Jesus, we must commit to the long haul. We have to commit to investing in people’s lives, walking the path of delayed gratification while providing hope, and being fully willing to be used actively by God as part of the miracle.
Be Bold, Live Out Loud