When Prayers Are Just Words
Why is it so difficult to pray for those who have hurt us when they are often the ones who need it the most?
Sure, I had heard the notion of “praying for your enemy” when I was a kid in Sunday School, but like most of my spiritual life, I walked away from prayer for a really long time. I turned my back, shut the door, and went about my way. To me, God was something that existed within the four walls of a sanctuary on Sunday morning for the good people.
My brother’s death gave me every reason to hate God even more than I already did. Those 49 days from the time Will died to the time I got to rehab, I only cussed God.
So, you can imagine how receptive I was when I arrived to rehab and my counselor told me I needed to pray for the people I resented most.
I’m sorry, what? She wanted me to pray for other people, not even myself? Did she not understand that I was the one in rehab for being an alcoholic? I had just lost my brother? Did she not get the memo this was about me? I couldn’t wrap my head around why on earth I would pray for my resentments. Screw them. I knew they weren’t praying for me. Why should I pray for them?
She directed me page 66 in the Big Book and asked me to read it:
“It is plain that a life which included deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worth while. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.”
Well, that seemed a little dramatic at the time. She told me that resentments were the number one offender and that it destroys more alcoholics than anything else and if I wanted to stay sober, be happy and not drink again, then I had to rid myself of these resentments.
Whoa. That’s a tall order, I thought. I mean, she was asking me to pray to a God that I had not been very pleasant to for years. But I had made an agreement to be willing to do what they asked of me and to keep an open mind. Obviously, my way of thinking and doing wasn’t working out so great for me.
So, I started praying for the people I hated more than myself. Luckily that list was very small.
She asked me to read a story in the back of the Big Book titled, “Freedom from Bondage.” This story was my first introduction to the Big Book and I was hooked. I could relate to so much of this woman’s story. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like I was the only person who felt the way I did. There was hope in her story and there were answers:
"If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for that person or the thing that you resent, you will be free. If you will ask in prayer for everything you want for yourself to be given to them, you will be free. Ask for their health, their prosperity, their happiness, and you will be free. Even when you don’t really want it for them and your prayers are only words and you don’t mean it, go ahead and do it anyway. Do it every day for two weeks, and you will find you have come to mean it and to want it for them, and you will realize that where you used to feel bitterness and resentment and hatred, you now feel compassionate understanding and love."
First step was simply praying for the willingness to pray for these resentments. It was difficult at first and my prayers were most definitely just words. I tried every way to be an exception to the rule and not pray for the people I hated. “But, I’m lying to God,” I would argue. That can’t be good. “Do it anyway,” she would say, so I did.
I didn’t mean what I was saying but I prayed anyway. I don’t know when my heart started to change but it did, and realizing that was a spiritual experience in itself.
One hundred and twenty six weeks later, and I am still working on one of those resentments. I can say I don’t hate this person today. And I don’t pray for this person everyday like I should. Some days are harder than others but today, my prayers aren’t just empty words and I know they aren’t falling on deaf ears.
I do want this person to be happy because it’s their own hurt, anger and resentment that causes this person to treat others the way they do. Today, I see this person as someone who is spiritually sick, because otherwise they wouldn’t act the way they do.
When your heart is consumed with anger, bitterness and hurt that’s the way you treat others. When your heart is overwhelmed with happiness, gratitude and compassion, that’s the way you treat others. I don’t know if this person has changed because of my prayers or if my prayers have just changed me. All I can really say for certainty is that prayer has the power to change, whatever that may be.
“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” Matthew 5:44