When Prayer Isn’t Prayer
What to do when intercession turns into anxiety.
By Sandy Feit
“I don’t want to be the grownup!”
This has become my anguished response to the role reversal I find myself in—as “mother" to my mother—and to the intensifying decisions surrounding end-of-life care. It’s not that I bemoan the task. On the contrary, I see caring for Mom as a privilege and wouldn’t trade places with my brother or sister, who live out of state. But this is a rigorous honor, and despite my siblings’ supportiveness and much appreciated visits, I’ve been feeling the weight and loneliness of such responsibility.
There’s also another dimension: I’m concerned about Mom spiritually. For more than three decades, God has been hearing me request, plead, and cry out on her behalf. But with each passing day, my dream of seeing this relentless prayer “tied in a bow” seems less likely.
As a result, I live in the tension of Mark 9:24 (NKJV)—the verse where the desperate father cries, “I believe; help my unbelief!” In this uneasy place, the line between faith and doubt blurs: I am certain God can but have no assurance that He will. After all, I’ve witnessed His miracles in others’ lives as well as my own, but I’ve also seen Him say no.
So I review what I am sure of: that I can’t move God’s hand; that I am not to presume on Him or put Him to the test (Deut. 6:16); that the clay has no business telling the potter what to do (Isaiah 29:16).
And I go over how He wants us to pray. Doesn’t the Lord tell us to make our requests known to Him (Phil. 4:6) and to do so without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17)? Doesn’t He assure us that our fervent prayers avail much (James 5:16)? So I remind Him of His own promises that support what I want—about His not being willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), about Him being the one who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). And as He urges in Matthew 7:7 (AMP), I “keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.”
Why, then, does my ardor to pray “right” somehow lead me to a place that runs counter to God’s very intention for prayer? I am fervent. Yet over time, in His lengthening silence and now with Mom’s worsening condition, my heartfelt supplications are sounding like rote pleas—could this be the meaningless repetition Matthew 6:7 warned against? Do I suppose I’ll “be heard for my many words”?
And when I step back to take an honest look, I realize that desperation has turned prayer into frenzy. God tells His righteous to cry out (Ps. 34:17), but in doing so, even I can detect a lack of faith tainting my obedience. Or at the very least, my zealousness ruins any ability to be still, to cast my cares on the Lord, or simply approach Him for rest (Ps. 46:10; 1 Peter 5:7; Matt. 11:29).
In the course of a single week, two different Christians observed my weariness (worry-ness?) and advised—one of them strongly—that I stop praying for this request. It was a rather jolting suggestion. Instead, they instructed my husband to pray for that particular outcome but counseled me to focus elsewhere: on God’s faithfulness, provision, and the many scriptural assurances of His love.
Apparently they recognized that in this instance, prayer had become something other than prayer. I’d tried hard to do everything “by the Book,” but in the process, trust-filled dependence on God had disintegrated into a legalistic attempt to take control. Despite my best efforts and good intentions, the way I prayed was tinged with unbelief and actually feeding my doubts and unrest.
The advice to “cease and desist” shocked me into observing the reality of how I approached God in the loneliness of my responsibilities. And though I’ve yet to become good at it, I at least see that the solution to “being the grownup” is simply to come, trusting, as a little child (Matt. 19:14).
And the solution to feeling alone is to realize that I never am.