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.