Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will see in prayer all action. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Self-Reliance
… whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. — Matthew 21:22
Honest prayer: What it is and isn’t
Everybody prays. I don’t care if you’re an atheist, an agnostic, a fundamentalist or something in between. We all pray. There’s an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes — and in this day and time, when so many of us in the gay and lesbian community are under siege, we are all praying.
Prayer is a form of hoping for the best. It is our feeble attempt to try and exercise some manner of control of the chaos that surrounds us. The atheist may not pray to God, but she sure does consciously hope that things will be okay, that everything will work out, and that in the end, good will prevail. Consciously hoping for things is prayer. But is it honest prayer?
Honest prayer: The challenge
The texts I quote above are hard texts to tackle. Both Emerson and Jesus challenge us to pray honestly. So many of our prayers are petty and shallow. How many times do we say, “I pray we get a good parking space” or “I pray we get there on time” or even “I pray I get the job” — or the raise, or the car, or the house, or the right love interest.
Emerson is right: This sort of prayer “as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.” Meanness and theft! We are begging God to give us material things or things that mean our own personal gain. What if getting that job means that someone else who needs it more than you goes hungry? Then your prayer does not seek “unity in nature and consciousness,” it seeks only your personal gain, often at the expense of others. That’s not honest prayer, that’s selfish prayer.
I’ve heard so many times, “I prayed, but there was no answer.” Maybe you prayed one of these selfish prayers that so richly deserve to go unanswered.
Honest prayer versus selfish prayer
I’m ashamed to say how many times I’ve searched a crowded parking lot, trying to make a deal with God. “C’mon, God,” I say, “just a great space this once and I’ll never ask again.” I pout if I don’t get my space, or I praise God if I do. What, in the overall scheme of things, has my prayer accomplished? Besides 10 fewer paces to my office, nothing. This is a dishonest and selfish prayer.
We don’t know how to pray honestly, so instead we beg God for jobs, cars, homes, lovers or parking spaces. We get so wrapped up in what we want personally from God we forget to look around us at a world in chaos. We forget to pray for the starving, for the closeted, for the fearful, for the abused, for world leaders, for our enemies, for our neighbors. We forget the power of honest prayer.
It’s tempting to pray for things we want, then to sit around and wait for them to happen. When they don’t fall into our laps, we become bitter and angry at God for ignoring us. The problem is, we’ve only prayed, we have not acted. We’ve prayed dishonestly.
Honest prayer is prayer with action
Honest prayer, simply put, is prayer with action. Praying without acting is dishonest. So when we pray for cars, homes, lovers and other personal things we think will enrich our lives, we must take an honest approach that includes action. Let me qualify that by saying: Indeed, what we seek is right action… action that ultimately will glorify God. Praying for good things to happen to us is not wrong in itself, but we often follow our prayers with wrong action.
When we pray for a lover, an example of a wrong action, a dishonest action, is to head for the nearest bar and start picking up potential lovers. Instead, a right action following the prayer for a lover would be to turn inward and work on ourselves. In this way, we prepare ourselves for the relationship that we want God to bring to us. We will be prepared to take the good and the bad of relationships in stride. Only by being strong in ourselves can we make a relationship strong and durable.
We can also be in action by simply waiting. I’m not referring to a passive, lazy waiting where we sit back and wait for God to drop the answers into our laps. Instead, I’m talking about a waiting that theologian Paul Tillich calls “the receiving waiting in openness”:
Waiting in inner stillness, with poised tension and openness toward what we can only receive. Such openness is highest activity; it is the driving force which leads us toward the growth of something new in us.
But that’s only one part of honest prayer. To pray honestly, we must also look outside of ourselves. In our quest to get some personal blessing from God, we forget that prayer is a community activity. We forget that prayer, to be effective, is to be delivered in an altruistic fashion, focused solely on what will bring glory to God in the world around us.
Honest prayer for GLBT people
This form of prayer seems simple. Jesus tells us to ask and we will receive. But there is a caveat: We only receive if we have faith. This passage has been abused by so many people within the church. Especially in the so-called “ex-gay” ministries. They are told that according to Jesus their prayers to be straight will be answered if they have faith.
When people buy this line and pray to have their sexual orientation changed, and then they remain gay, they are told they don’t have enough faith. That’s a lie. These people have plenty of faith. What’s wrong is they are praying selfishly. We should never, ever pray for our sexual orientation to be changed. What a faithless and utterly selfish prayer!
An honest prayer would be to pray for the corporate faith and understanding of the church to finally be able to embrace all of God’s children, just as God has made them. Gay, straight, transgender, left-handed, feeble minded — whatever. However God has seen fit to make God’s creation, we should be praying for the accepting spirit of God to move in our churches, in our communities, and in our own lives.
We have faith in the ultimate power of God to bring this about. That faith is what moves us to take action to bring about God’s will in the church. This is an honest prayer.
Honest prayer seeks the good for all, not the good just for me or the good just for you. Honest prayer seeks to edify the community at large, not just to make Christ our personal Santa Claus who hands out presents for the asking. Honest prayer takes us out of our selfish myopia and opens our eyes to the real suffering that takes place around us every single day. Honest prayer moves us to take right actions. Honest prayer makes us humble in the presence of God.
Honest prayer: How to get started
So then, how do we pray honestly? First, we dispense with our selfish prayers. We stop asking for things that God has already promised to take care of. We are told to not be anxious about what we shall eat, what we shall drink or what we shall wear. Our first priority is clearly spelled out in Matthew 6:33:
But seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well.
We are to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. We only do this when we are seeking what is best for the community as a whole. We do not seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness while we are praying selfishly for this or that to happen personally to us or for us. Our first priority is God’s kingdom, not our own.
Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” …we are not to pray for our own will or well-being. If we are faithful to God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, the things we seek for ourselves — cars, jobs, lovers, homes — will take care of themselves.
So, are we not to pray at all for our own personal well-being? Are we not to make our desires known to God? Certainly we can bring our wishes, our hopes and our dreams to God. But remember they are just that: Our wishes… our hopes… our dreams. Often our desires for our lives do not match God’s desires for our lives. Which would you rather have?
Honest prayer: Careful what you wish for
God can answer prayer in limitless ways. Why limit God with only our short-sighted desires? Remember the saying, “Careful what you wish for.” Getting your own way may not be in your best interest. Often when we get exactly what we want, we find we don’t want it, or it is not as satisfying as we thought it would be. We thought our prayer was honest, we thought we were asking in the name of the greater good.
I have a friend who told me she prayed for a particular job and gave God a laundry list of things she would like in the job and the community where she was going to live. God answered her prayer, exactly as she had asked for. She got the job complete with all the attributes she had stipulated, and the community she was living in had all the amenities she had asked God to provide. Guess what? She hated it. She says it was the worst time of her life! Her answered prayer taught her a lot about honest prayer, and letting God lead the way in life, instead of insisting on our own way.
So, when praying for those things you desire, remember that the answer may not always be exactly what you expect. Do not lose faith in these times. Remember, we only see through a mirror darkly, but God sees the big picture. Often when God says no to our prayers it is the best answer for us in the long run.
My friend learned a valuable lesson from her experience and has stopped begging God for this or that to happen. Instead our honest prayers are humble requests, followed with “by your will, not mine,” and the willingness to take right action. Once we make that important caveat in our prayers, we free ourselves to act in accordance with God’s will. Our prayers turn from being selfish to being honest, and we begin to see prayer in all action.
When we are praying for the greater well-being of the world around us, we cannot help but be prompted into action. If you stop long enough to notice the suffering around you, how can you not be moved to begin to take action? Prayer can never be separated from acting. Without action, your prayer is dishonest.
Honest prayer: You’re reading the result
Whosoever is the direct result of an honest prayer, maybe the only truly honest prayer I’ve ever mustered. I saw the suffering of my gay, lesbian, bi and transgender brothers and sisters at the hands of a religion that talks about inclusion but practices exclusion. I asked God how this could change, and God showed me how to make a living stream in the desert for my suffering brothers and sisters.
If I had founded Whosoever for my own personal gratification, or my own personal gain, it would never have become the instrument of God that it is today. I had, and still have, faith that whatever God needed out of me, or the magazine, it would be there. The miracle of it is, it has!
I used to marvel that people contribute their time and money to this magazine, or wonder why people write for this publication for free. It no longer mystifies me. They do it because they know honest prayer when they see it. They do it because they no longer beg God, and instead they see prayer — real, deep and honest prayer — in the action of this magazine.
Whosoever seeks the good for all. We seek not just the good for gay, lesbian, bi or transgender believers, but the good of the church at large. By accepting and using the gifts of GLBT Christians, the church benefits and grows. Our mission, our honest prayer, is ultimately for the good of the body of Christ overall, not just our own personal spiritual growth or salvation.
This is the most real and positive example I can give you of honest prayer. I challenge you to step back from your own prayer life and examine how you’ve been praying. It is honest prayer, or is it selfish prayer?
Remember, “prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious.” Examine your prayer life, see that all your prayers are honest, and seek only things that are all good — not just for you, but for everyone.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.