I’m a big time proponent of prayer. Wake up in the morning, pray. Before I eat, pray. About to sleep, pray. Browse social media and see the struggles of others, pray. It’s an integral part of who I am and should be an integral part of every Christian’s life. Prayer is powerful, encouraging, calming, and effective, but sometimes it’s a damaging suggestion capable of severely harming those who hear it. Seriously, that’s not an overreaction. I love praying as much as the next Christian guy or gal but sometimes telling someone to “go pray about it” is just a really bad idea. This phrase is typically given as a response when no other response can be thought of. Suppose that someone comes to you revealing that they’ve had an ongoing struggle with pornography. You know that porn is bad, but you’ve never indulged in it yourself so you impart the following sage bit of Christian advice…”have you tried praying about it?” without any thought as to how the listener might take that. Here are three reasons why we need to stop saying that phrase.
…because they’re (more than likely) already praying
Bill Cosby should come out of retirement and host a new show called “Christians Say the Darndest Things” because, quite honestly, there are few phrases we Christians toss around that really don’t make much sense. One example is the phrase “God has a plan for you” which is often said in the midst of what feels like a dire situation. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Absolutely, and sometimes God’s plan might involve going through something dire. Being told that this pain we’re experiencing might be part of God’s plan isn’t really all that encouraging. “Have you tried praying about it” is another one of those phrases that really doesn’t make a lot of sense. I mean have we truly progressed to the point in 21st century Christianity that we don’t expect those who claim Christianity to put into practice a fundamental part of the religion? Have they tried praying about it? OF COURSE THEY HAVE! They’ve prayed, cried, studied, listened to sermons, read books, kept busy and done a multitude of other things to try and conquer the sin in their life. Now they’re coming to you for assistance and telling them to “go pray about it” is a nice way of saying “thanks for coming to me, but I don’t want to deal with your problems so take it to God.” Instead of us telling those who come to us to pray about it, we should assume that the Christian coming to us probably already has and work from there (more on this in the last paragraph).
…because prayer isn’t a magic cure-all
Prayer is incredibly powerful. James tells us that through prayer Christians can receive the forgiveness of sins (5:15) and may even be healed of physical infirmities as well (5:16)! Prayer is so powerful that Elijah, a man like us, was able to stop and start the rainfall (James 5:17-18). This power does NOT mean however that prayer is a cure-all. Temptations aren’t suddenly conquered after a quick prayer and bad events aren’t instantly repaired after a talk with God either. Note: this does not diminish the power or necessity of prayer in any way. Prayer is beneficial and a great source of peace (Phil. 3:6-7), but that doesn’t mean that it magically fixes everything. If I’m sad about the loss of a loved one, while prayer may help me cope, it doesn’t remove the initial hurt of losing that loved one. Someone who is depressed can find great comfort in prayer, but that doesn’t mean the depression is going to go away. Someone with an addiction to drugs or pornography can find relief in prayer, but the addiction doesn’t disappear after the “amen”. We’ve got to be careful about telling people to “pray about it” when they come to us with a struggle. Chances are they’re already praying about it and looking for a help in addition to their prayer because they know that prayer won’t magically make their problems go away.
…because it’s demeaning
“Have you prayed about it?” is the theological equivalent to “have you tried turning it off and on again?” only that second question often helps the situation, the first one just hurts. Now not only are you struggling with a sin or addiction, but your spirituality in general is coming under fire too. Those of us who ask the question “have you tried praying about it” aren’t trying to insinuate anything about the spiritual life of the person asking for help, but the advice (term used loosely) is often received that way. “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” is often said to the technologically illiterate person. So too those that are on the receiving end of the “have you prayed about it?” question feel as if they’re theologically illiterate, and spiritually bankrupt.
If we aren’t supposed to say this phrase, what can we do? Instead of suggesting that prayer is the answer, maybe it would be best to continue a dialogue with that person and try to understand what they’re truly going through, after all God comforts us so that we can in turn comfort those who are hurting or struggling with temptation (2 Cor. 1:3-4). If another Christian comes up to us revealing to us their problem they evidently view us as a spiritually strong Christian. This means that we have got the responsibility to help shoulder what is burdening them (Gal. 6:1-2). We must be careful that we’re not passing off that responsibility by telling others to go pray about it. In fact, instead of telling them to go pray about it, why don’t we stop and pray with them? Why don’t we become accountable to them by calling or messaging them periodically throughout the week? Why don’t we sit down and cry with them as they try to fight back tears thinking about how they’ve disappointed God with their sin instead of casting them aside telling them to go talk to God about it? Why should we stop telling people to “pray about it?” Because they’re probably already praying, it doesn’t cure everything, it comes off as demeaning and most of all we shouldn’t use that phrase because the Christians job is not to turn the downtrodden away, but to pick them up. The next time a Christian comes to you saying “I need to talk to you because I’m struggling with…” extend an ear to listen or a hand to help, but please do not extend to them the phrase “have you tried praying about it?”