A Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
Yesterday I spoke at a conference on theology and mental health. I was one of 10 presenters, and I talked about the current trend toward medicalizing sadness. Increasingly, grief and other feelings of sadness are now treated with anti-depressants. One man in the audience, who has been a psychiatrist for 40 years, affirmed what I said. He noted that in his younger days, people were often referred to grief counselors when dealing with various forms of grief. Now, he said, they are simply given anti-depressants.
As a part of my talk, I mentioned other kinds of sadness and discouragement that are common in ministry when things aren’t going as we expected. I referred to the notion of a spiritual battle, that there are forces for good and evil that we can’t see or touch. I read from Ephesians 6:10-17 and I recommended prayer as a way to keep our perspective centered on Christ in the midst of difficult ministry situations.
One of the questions after my presentation surprised me. A woman said, “You’ve recommended prayer. How would you define prayer?”
I replied, “There are many kinds of prayer, and the definition might vary depending on the kind of prayer we have in mind. I’ll mention two kinds of prayer that seem significant when people are discouraged in the midst of ministry. One kind would be intercessory prayer.”
She interrupted me. “You mean begging.”
I think I gave a good answer: “I would say that intercessory prayer is more about relinquishment than about begging. We say to God, ‘Loving God, we’re concerned about this specific situation. Please be at work in this situation, and here’s how we wish you would be at work, but ultimately you are God and we are not. Please enable us to trust you in this situation that we concerned about.’”
I really believe prayer matters. I really believe we are called to be partners with God in ministry, and that God wants to hear our perspective on how we think God should act in any given situation. I really believe God acts in response to our prayers.
And I also believe prayer shapes our hearts as we acknowledge that God is wiser than we are about what needs to be done. Therefore, part of what we do in prayer is relinquish our need to be right and our need to control. Another aspect of what we do in prayer is listen to God so we can grow in understanding the best way to pray about a situation.
I’ve done more than a hundred interviews for my books on Christian spiritual practices. Over and over my interviewees have told me that as they fasted, as they engaged in contemplative prayer, as they have engaged in other spiritual disciplines, they heard from God new ways to pray about the things they were concerned about. They start off praying a certain way for a situation, and as they continue to pray, God helps them see a different way to pray, a different perspective or priority about the situation.
This is quite mysterious, and the only way I can describe it is that we are partners with God in intercessory prayer just as we are partners with God in ministry. God wants to know our perspective, and often wants to give us another perspective as well.
For the record, in my answer I also talked about the kinds of prayer that help us notice what God is already doing: thankfulness prayers and various forms of silent prayer. These forms of prayer help us listen to God as well, and obviously we need to listen if we are to grow in hearing God’s perspective on new ways to pray for the things we care about.