Column: Image to Image: Musings on Faith, Media, and Story
January entry: “Three (or Four) Impossible Prayers”
Column Description: Image to Image: Musings on Faith, Media, and Story is a monthly column that illuminates old and new ideas about media ecology from a Christian perspective. Dr. Mitchell will explore what it means to bear God’s image and Christian witness in a mediated world, with a particular focus on the relationships between theology, media, and orthopraxy across different Christian traditions.
By Chase Mitchell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Media and Communication, East Tennessee State University
January 2023 / September-October 2022 / July 2022 / June 2022 / April-May 2022 / January 2022 / November 2021 / October 2021 / September 2021
Three (or Four) Impossible Prayers
Academics sometimes like to use fancy words like heuristic, which means, basically, a framework or method for organizing and/or understanding something. Several months ago, as I was ruminating in the shower, a kind of heuristic began to form in my mind: a prayer heuristic. It started as a hazy notion, or concern, about the lack of structure in my prayer life. I wasn’t praying enough, and when I did my thoughts were scattered, my efforts haphazard.
For years I’d been praying in stops and spurts about different things, but mostly for people—relatives, friends, colleagues, students. I think this instinct is probably right. We can pray for other “things,” but most things, good and bad, are ultimately affected by (and effected in) the human heart. When we pray for things like political sanity, racial reconciliation, peace in war-torn countries, or environmental justice, we do so not because they’re somehow detached from human experience, independent entities floating in the ether, but because they’re fundamentally tied to human life. All things find their meaning in the human (who find meaning in Christ). It’s good to pray for people, that is, because through humanity—or, more specifically, the Church—God saves the world.
But it’s hard to pray for people. One reason why it’s so difficult is that there’s so many of them. There’s so much need; who can remember it all? If I were as faithful as the average Christian, I would start a prayer journal. I could write it down. I know this works well for many Christians. But the way my mind operates, I needed a mnemonic, a memory device, to rely on as I sifted through my fragmented thoughts, concerns, and hopes. For all the reading and writing I do—much of it organized, planned, structured—in my spiritual life I struggle with technique. In prayer, I’m essentially what the French call a flaneur, an aimless wanderer.
Somehow, though, despite my spiritual laxity, God impressed a new insight. I noticed that there were three people I’d been praying for, at least irregularly, for the past few years. I hadn’t lumped them together on purpose, nor prayed for them collectively in a conscious way. I don’t even see them with any frequency anymore. But for the reasons below, God had consistently put it on my heart to pray for each of them.
- My close friend, whom I’ve known since high school, is extremely intelligent and successful according to all worldly standards. He holds degrees from prestigious universities and has a lucrative job at a reputable institution in a major city. He used to claim to be a Christian, but now says he sees Christianity for what it is: an outdated myth best left to the dustbin of history.
- My elderly friend, who volunteered at my previous workplace and with whom I’ve maintained a relationship, once said to me that he can’t believe Christianity because doing so means acknowledging one’s own sin. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said.
- My extended family member, who I spent a lot of time with in my twenties, is an addict. He’s made poor decisions since he was a teenager, which have hurt those around him and caused years of misery. His body is succumbing to the effects of chronic substance abuse. As a result, he’s deluded, unable to see how his choices darken an already imprisoned existence and destroy relationships. Unlike the two above, he says he’s a Christian, but his life doesn’t reflect it.
The first two, both unbelievers, are blinded by a sense of false strength. My high school friend is most susceptible to intellectual pride; he thinks he’s smart enough to see through the façade of religion. My elderly friend struggles most with moral pride; he fails to see why he needs a Savior because he thinks he’s good enough.
The third, my extended family member, doesn’t have a sense of false strength, but rather false weakness. He’s destroyed his life by making choices based on the belief that relying on alcohol and drugs, instead of on God, is the only way he can get through life. Of course, at this point his addictions are pathological. Years of substance abuse have made him chemically dependent and has largely removed “choice” from the picture. But his current plight is the result of increasingly bad decisions early in life that were rooted in the false assumption, or ignorant pride, that God is too weak to sustain him in the face of pain and trouble.
All their problems are reducible to the same spiritual source: pride. This wasn’t a new insight, of course. Most Christians recognize pride (i.e., not believing God’s way is best) as the original sin. But in considering these three, what became apparent is that most people struggle with a particular flavor of pride. We might think of pride as the “irreducible” sin, but in our unique brokenness we make pride our own. Our sinful behaviors manifest differently, but those behaviors are merely derivative of hubris.
Now, when I pray for my high school friend, I pray that God would humble him; that he would see that God’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of man (1 Corinthians 1:25). When I pray for my elderly friend, I pray that God would reveal to him that all fall short of His perfect standard (Romans 3:23); that he would come to see his need for Christ. When I pray for my family member, I pray that God would show him the futility of worldly pleasure; that only God can satisfy his deepest longings (Isaiah 58:11). In sum, I pray that God would show them their utter dependence on Him for all things.
But to be honest, these prayers seem impossible. As well as I know these individuals, I can’t imagine any possible way that my prayers for them will come true. I can’t envision any scenario in which they will “see the light.” And then I look in the mirror. I’m not just being humble for rhetorical effect. Whatever shortcomings or transgressions I perceive or imagine about these three, I’ve been and done worse. Years ago, when I thought God wasn’t real and hated just about everything and everybody, my intellectual pride, moral pride, and ignorant pride—as well as my outward-manifesting bad behavior—exceeded even the most uncharitable evaluations of others. And still today, as I walk in Christ’s salvation, I struggle with these things. I’m redeemed, and God in His mercy blunts the worst effects of my sin, but my pride is especially stubborn. I put on a good show, but I know it.
And so, my fourth prayer is that God would soften my own heart; that He would destroy my pride, and all its manifestations, and dispel the belief that my friends are lost. This is God’s genius: He teaches the damnable to pray for the damned, because only those who’ve known the impossibility of their own salvation can pray for the possibility of their neighbors’.
It has to be God’s work, not mine. Pride says my-way-or-the-highway, which, as Augustine put it, disorders our loves. Unless God pierces the heart and reorders our loves so that we put Him first, we’ll continue being “too smart,” “too moral,” or “too weak” to do His will. But when God cuts off sin at its source—when he uproots our pride—we’re then able to think rightly, to live righteously, to conquer weakly.
Now back to that fancy word: heuristic. Beyond giving me a new prayer for these three individuals (and for myself), these insights have also helped me to pray better in general. I begin each night by praying for these three individuals, which gives me structure. Then, I cull my brain for others I’ve encountered or thought about during the day and ask myself if they seem to be most susceptible/vulnerable to intellectual pride, moral pride, ignorant pride, or some other hubris. It’s usually not a difficult exercise. Although we’re mostly blind to our own flaws, humans are adept at identifying others’ foibles. It takes patient reflection and consideration to perceive how pride is manifesting in a person’s outward behavior, and I must be careful not to fall into armchair psychoanalysis, recognizing that my perspective is always going to be incomplete. But guided by the Spirit and aware of my own blind spots, it helps me to empathize with (we’re all prideful) and pray for people in thoughtful ways.
I pray for other things too. Sometimes being a flaneur is helpful in one’s prayer life. To pray without ceasing would be impossible—and dreary—if it were all structured. Spiritual wandering can be a gift. But I hope that this new, limited heuristic has been fruitful. Of course, Jesus taught us to pray, and our prayers will always be derivative of His. Perhaps if we’d all simply learn to pray humbly, His will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.