About 17 years ago, I was attending church three times a week. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer and then gone into remission, only to find out that her husband, my stepdad, had been cheating on her while she was in chemo. After an ugly divorce, her cancer returned, but this time it didn’t look like she was going to win.
Church became our solace. The community we built there helped us through her divorce and her illness. They prayed our way through each crises, and I prayed with them.
But each time, God seemed to tell us “no.”
After my mom died, I kept praying. It was inertia. But it gradually began to feel hollow. I didn’t throw a tantrum and tell God, “I’m never speaking to you again.” Instead, it was a slow decline in trust. It was as if I were a child, and my parent had stopped showing up for me.
For someone who’d been so embedded in prayer, and the culture of faith, my decision to stop praying wasn’t easy. When life is hard, hopeless, and confusing, prayer is often the only thing that empowers us. It’s how we fight helplessness.
But when we stop praying, helplessness is all that’s left. For most of us, that’s very uncomfortable. And even after I’d decided to quit, I kept fighting the urge to pray. I’d think: How much easier would it be to say a quick prayer on the off chance it might work?
I’d been leaning on the “We’ll pray for you” method of doing nothing.
Then, I started to notice how often Christians substitute prayer for more direct action.
When was the last time you said you would pray for someone? When’s the last time you actually did? And when’s the last time you did something else to reach out and give support? Offered a meal, an ear, a social connection, a protest sign? I’d been leaning on the “We’ll pray for you” method of doing nothing. By not praying, I forced myself to either admit a passive stance or roll up my sleeves and get to work.
I began to reject prayers from those around me. When someone told me they were going to pray for me, I did not feel grateful. I felt resentful. Though I knew they were coming from a good place, I didn’t want their prayers. I wanted their support, concretely.
To insult people’s prayers is to insult their faith. For many, traditional prayer is a central tenet of faith. I never found a way to have this conversation graciously, to politely acknowledge another’s belief without being made complicit in it. And while I wouldn’t say it was easy to decouple prayer and belief, I found that, ultimately, I still believe in a higher power, even if he doesn’t take requests.