Using Prayer As A Weapon

Shawn Larsenchurch, Culture, Mormon, prayer 18 Comments

Here’s how the bedtime ritual usually goes at my house.  After baths are finished, hair is combed and teeth are brushed, my family gathers for evening prayers.  Each of my daughters takes a turn, with the oldest (7 years old) usually volunteering to go first.  Without fail, her short prayers contain the following elements:  (i) expressions of gratitude for “this day” and “our friends,” (ii) a request for a blessing that she have a “good night’s sleep,” (iii) a request that the Lord help us “find a new house” (we’re house hunting at the moment), and (iv) pleading that she and her sisters finally get a dog (FWIW — no deity is powerful enough to make me want a dog).  Then strategy kicks in . . .

On days when she is happy with everyone, she’ll say, “thank you for our family.”  More often than not, however, she’s still stinging from some perceived wrong against her earlier in the day.  Prayer time is her way of unleashing the ultimate weapon — enlisting God as her ally in the fight against the bad guy.  For example, if she’s mad at me (this is the case 99% of the time), she’ll say, “please bless Mommy, Tess and Jane.”  Notice anyone missing from that list?  If she’s mad at her sister, I’ll make the cut, but little sis will not.  In that case, when it is little sister’s turn, you can imagine who will be omitted from her prayer.

After years on the front lines, this intra-family cosmic warfare doesn’t provoke much reaction from me anymore (the same can’t be said, unfortunately, for the unlucky sister on the outs that night).  But something I heard last week brought it to mind and has me thinking about the ways in which we use prayer as a weapon against others.

Acting on Clay’s advice, I’ve been working my way through several years worth of Sunstone’s “Pillars of Faith” sessions.  He’s right, they are a great listen. The other night, I came upon a session (SLC 1994, to be exact) that opens with a prayer, which includes the following passage:

“We ask a special blessing on our Church. We ask a blessing of healing, that those who have seen fit to discipline those among us who have been denied their membership in this Church, that they may rethink these things and that in time our Church may be healed and that we may enjoy the love of Christ among all members and that we’ll be able to enjoy diversity and grow.”

On its face, this prayer may seem like nothing out of the ordinary.  I do not doubt that it is sincere, it does not single anyone out as an evildoer or call anybody to repentance, and when heard as whole, it is couched in familiar Mormon-speak (“We thank thee for . . .”)   Nevertheless, this wording, albeit in a subtle manner, definitely pushes a specific agenda:  “I’m right.  You’re wrong.  God, make my foe see the light.  Amen.”  In other words, the member offering the prayer is invoking God’s power not to seek assistance for another, but rather to push that other person to see things her way.  Use of the phrase “special blessing” alone does not alter or mask the prayer’s intent.  That’s a play straight out of my daughters’ handbook.

Lest I be accused of bias, let me make clear that this tactic is not deployed exclusively by the Sunstone crowd or others who lean a bit left of center, Church-wise.  Let me give you an example that I see nearly every single week.  Here in Southern California, we’re being inundated with Prop. 8 electioneering both in and out of the chapel on Sunday morning.  I often hear prayers offered in which the member thanks God for “having the understanding” that this particular piece of legislation is “Your plan,” “Your Gospel,” or “the manner by which Your purposes may be achieved.”  (No, I’m not making this up.)  Regardless of how of you (and the prayer-giver) feel about Prop. 8, this prayer inarguably serves the same persuasive end as the Sunstone prayer above.  It’s the equivalent of saying:  “God, please bless all of us here who think Prop. 8 is divinely-inspired, and help those who don’t to get with the program.  Amen.”

This “prayer as a weapon” approach certainly does not jibe with the example Christ set.  Quite to the contrary, it radically distorts it.  The thrust of the Lord’s Prayer is an expression of gratitude to God (“Hallowed be thy name”).  Others are mentioned only in the context of our obligation to “forgive our debtors.” Similarly, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the focus of Christ’s supplication was inward:  “Let this cup pass from me.”  In both cases, Christ did not seek to use his communication with God as a means to force others to accept his message, despite the foreknowledge of what lay ahead for him.

All of this has me asking, is seeking divine assistance in persuading others to come around to one’s particular point of view inappropriate?  I have to believe that the answer, as a general matter, is “no.”    We offer these sorts of prayers all of the time.  Heck, that’s the only kind of prayer missionaries know how to give:  “Please bless Hermano Ortiz to understand that this is the true Church.” But, in my mind, there is a line beyond which our prayers transform into attempts at celestial manipulation, rather than sincere requests on behalf of our fellow man.  Pinpointing exactly where that line lies, however, is tricky.  Perhaps, like obscenity, it is a “I know it when I hear it” standard.  What do you think?

In any event, these thoughts have led me to re-evaluate how I pray.  So often, I rely on the rote recitations learned through 36 years as a Mormon, with little thought given to the true intent behind my words.  Do I want Brother Jones to receive a blessing for his own good or for mine?  What do I have to gain from such a request, and is that the determining factor in how I frame my prayer?  This is a new experience for me and, I’ll admit, I don’t always like my answers to these questions.  But it is worth the effort. Otherwise, how am I ever going to be able to teach my daughters what prayer is really all about — sincere, humble and selfless communication with the Almighty.

Comments 18

  1. Wonderful post, Shawn. I’m going to use this, I’m sure, in a future talk and/or training session – and I am going to have all of my kids read it ASAP.

    I have to think about it some more before I comment further. Thanks.

  2. Excellent thoughts here. This reminds me of the early years of my marriage, when our prayers at night were sometimes a way to express the things that we (in our inexperience with communicating openly) couldn’t say directly to each other.

    I recently read a book (I think it was by Brian McLaren, an evangelical minister/writer) in which the author talked about how we always ask God to let his spirit be with us in our meetings, as if He would somehow not bother if we didn’t ask. His answer was, “But isn’t God’s spirit always here, always available to us?” This made me rethink all those rote lines we hear in church meetings and at home. Maybe it would be more appropriate for us to ask for clarity and awareness that we can be in tune with the spirit that is already there.

  3. Great post!

    My mom was the queen of manipulative prayers when my brother and I were in high school. That was her forum to say everything that we wouldn’t otherwise stick around to hear. Later, she was embarrassed that she’d behaved this way. Afterward, family prayers became more focused on asking for blessings for others and help for those who were struggling–giving a gift rather than climbing up on a soap box.

    I’ve experienced some powerful shifts when I pray for enemies, for people I don’t particularly like or who are making my life difficult. This takes major effort on my part, as I’m more naturally inclined to b!tch and moan about them. When I go against my nature and ask God to help them or give them what they need, it completely changes how I relate to these folks and the situation. I don’t do it as often as I probably should, but I can definitely recommend it!

  4. Shawn – what a great post! I like the idea of being more “me” focused in prayer. So rather than praying for someone to change to see things my way, pray that I will be able to be of service to them or that I will become more open minded.

  5. Excellent post and very thought provoking. but Gees, Shawn if you can’t ask God for retribution, what’s left? 🙂

    This is excellent food for thought and i can see hundreds tonight thinking more closely about the kinds of prayer they offer. I know that I will. I just wonder how we get over the roteness of:

    1. We thank Thee… – Thank Heavenly Father for your blessing and the things that you have received.(Thanks for the money for the big flat panel)
    2. We Ask Thee… – Ask for the things we need (like please get my sister to stop hitting me…. or at least punish her good!)

  6. Amelia beat me to the punch, but I also thought of Twain’s “War Prayer” as I read your post. In fact, I’m going to do a little composing on that point, just to make a point to some.

  7. Prayer is a great weapon in my house! We often skip prayer here but when we have had an argument or have been mean we have one then- usually its my suggestion. I often suggest we say a prayer and say stuff like “let us remember who we are and what we standard for, and try to be more loving and patient with each other”. The reaction I get is like throwing a chicken into a piranha tank!

  8. It seems very common for the role of prayer in believers’ life to serve as a sort of unwitting folk magic — the belief that saying prayer a certain way or at certain times or frequency or because one is of a certain faith or nationality binds God into performing action on one’s behalf.

    It’s a risky path to enlightenment. I think when one sees this shortcoming in others it is hard not to be judgmental and even seriously put off — like Twain’s “War Prayer” or Dylan’s “With God On Our Side” aptly illustrate. Yet such awareness can lead to pride that also becomes a barrier to effective prayer.

    I think prayer begins as a helpful ritual for living focused outside oneself when one can become self aware of the one’s own natural inclination to treat God like a magical vending machine. I remember my Mom’s advice when I was young to deliberately and regularly make time to have only “thankful prayers”. It seems like applying the principle of fasting to the habit of prayer.

    Prayer is can be a beautiful act for vocalizing the needs of others into the ether of our human interconnectedness. It can build hope, family, community and living with commitment to our most ideal myths. It can reinforce one’s humility, vulnerability and dependence on God. It can be a way to say what cannot comfortably be said person to person. It can be a way to inspire us into personal and collective action. When we pray as a family, it gives us a moment to hold hands together and feel more unity.

    I try to pray “thankful prayers” with more regularity. When action is desired I try to resist the urge to vocalise imperatives for God. Instead I ask for His help to help me/we/us find the strength for action and decision. It’s hard to avoid sounding “apart” and “other” when praying from this perspective, trying to avoid pat phraseology while you are also trying to build community with those more “selfish” who believe God is on their side.

  9. Scriptures can be used as weapons as well, but hopefully the following will not be perceived as such. They exist merely to provide some meat (or tempeh, if you’re vegetarian) to chew on:

    Matt 5:44: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; ”

    2 Ne 4:33: “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy.”

    I think the first scripture is interpreted by Christ’s followers to use prayer as a weapon against those who don’t agree with their worldview (such as the pro Prop. 8 prayers mentioned above). I believe that these sincere individuals believe that those who pray this way perhaps see themselves praying for their persecutors to come around to the “truth” set forth by God, and that the prayer serves both to align the person praying with God’s cause, and also enlists His help in helping the Other see the error of their ways. I’m almost certain that this was not Christ’s intent. Taking a stab at it, I would say that Christ is teaching us to love everyone regardless of how they treat you. It probably does not mean that you should wish to have all your enemies have a change of heart and see things as you do, or even as you perceive God does. That’s probably beside the point to God; He probably wants you to love others, and use prayer as a meditation that leads to actions (bless them…, do good to them…) that helps you overcome your natural inclination to hate.

    The second scripture, taken from “Nephi’s Psalm” has Nephi praying to the Lord to have Him place a stumbling block in the way of his enemies, possibly to prevent that enemy from threatening his physical, spiritual, emotional, etc. safety. Does prayer become a defensive parry or shield against the attacks of the Other? Is this the same or different sort of prayer from the prayer as weapon (sword)? Is “defensive” petitionary prayer more loving than “offensive” petitionary prayer?

  10. One thing that has been a direct result of the changes in my personal faith has been prayer. Since I have mostly let go of belief in heavy intervention from God, I prefer not to ask God to do a lot of things anymore. I came to realize that most things I might ask of God, if He were to do them, would impose on someone’s agency somewhere. I.e. making myself the axis around which the universe orbits.

    So now I primarily use prayer as a way to thank God for things and I only ask for Him to help me do good things, have a clear mind to make good judgments, etc.

  11. Great post, Shawn. Reminds me of Christ’s words in the Lord’s Prayer that we should be asking God that “thy will be done,” and not our own (e.g., “please bless everyone else that they will come to understand that I am right”). It seems to the extent we ask the Lord to do something for us, we should be adding the caveat “. . . if it by thy will,” so as not to presume that we have a perfect understanding of God’s mind and will.

  12. SteveS: I know you probably know this already, but it needs to be said in defense of Nephi. If we read his psalm with an eye on context (rather than proof-text), it’s fairly obvious that the “enemy” is Satan. Nephi sometimes refers to “enemies,” and this *can* mean the Lamanites, but the part you’ve quoted is long into a section on deliverance from sin.

    Just from that verse: robe of righteousness, escape from captors, a straight path, hedging up the enemy – these are all atonement symbols.

    FWIW, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask for things that the Apostles are pushing, such as Prop. 8 getting passed. Even if it’s wrong, you’re still showing God that you trust him by trusting the people he’s put at the head of the Church.

  13. “So now I primarily use prayer as a way to thank God for things and I only ask for Him to help me do good things, have a clear mind to make good judgments, etc.” Me too.

  14. Anon. #14: Thanks for that perspective. I’m not hatin’ on Nephi; that passage of scripture is one of my favorites when I’m seeking strength despite personal weakness. I hope I didn’t use the verse as a proof-text; I think the “enemy” could be both his brothers the Lamanites AND Satan. Both are contextual, imo. I really hoped people would comment about the use of petitionary prayer in “defensive” gestures vs. “offensive” gestures–is one more appropriate than another? are both alright? are there problems with both?

  15. You raise good points in this post, Shawn. Regarding this one:

    But, in my mind, there is a line beyond which our prayers transform into attempts at celestial manipulation, rather than sincere requests on behalf of our fellow man. Pinpointing exactly where that line lies, however, is tricky. Perhaps, like obscenity, it is a “I know it when I hear it” standard. What do you think?

    I think the key is whether we’re praying in the presence of the person we’re praying for. If we are in their presence, it’s much more likely that we’re being manipulative. In other words, if the other person can hear us pray and we know it, then we’re more prone to actually talk to that person under the guise of talking to God. If we’re praying out of the hearing of the person we’re praying for, our prayer can’t be manipulative in the same way, I don’t think. We still might be praying for something that has consequences we don’t want to think about, as illustrated by The War Prayer, or we might be asking God to limit someone else’s agency so we can have something we want. In general, we might be asking for bad stuff, but I think it’s not comparable to how we try to manipulate people when we pray for them in their presence.

  16. Great post! I’d say one of the important things in this is knowing how to play to your audience. You can pray personally all you want that your kids get along and stop fighting, but when you do it in front of them you’re probably speaking more to the kids than to God. With some luck, the standard missionary supplication (man, you were dead on on that one) “let them know it’s true” is, hopefully, not an attack prayer because it’s shared by the others listening to the prayer. Ideally, at least, they’d say the same thing if they were acting as voice.

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