While I was rummaging around in the office for something the other day, I found maybe a dozen copies of a small book, “Letters to a Young Doubter,” by the great William Sloane Coffin. According to a note written on the inside, they were originally intended as gifts to recent high school graduates, but these few copies were either extras or for one reason or another went unclaimed by the graduates. I snagged one of the copies for my desk, and in the spare moments I’ll pull it out and read a few pages of the book, which is formatted as a series of letters from Coffin to an imaginary young university student – kind of a much more thoughtful, but sometimes almost as funny, literary version of one of Bob Newhart’s one-way telephone call routines. Coffin certainly didn’t invent the genre, but as far as I’ve gotten into it at this point – which, admittedly, is not very – it’s pretty good.
One thing that Coffin writes early on struck a familiar chord. He’s been asked by his imaginary friend to explain his personal journey into faith. As he lays out his story, he writes of having lost his youthful innocence and naivete as a result of his military experience during and just after World War II, and his entrance into college immediately after that:
Once in college I searched hard for answers. I read the French existentialists – “crisis thinkers” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Malraux, and especially Albert Camus, all professed atheists. Also I steeped myself in Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, all profound theologians. My mind went toward the atheists, but my heart was pulled toward the theologians. Both had a tragic sense of life, both knew what hell was all about, but in the depths of it the theologians found a heaven that made more sense out of everything, much as light gives meaning to darkness.
Sensing a troubled soul, a small band of Christian students came to convert me. But their answers seemed too pat; their submission to God, too ready. It occurred to me that as with parents so with God; too easy a submission is but a facade for repressed rebellion. Besides, they didn’t look redeemed!
Actually, I was right about their repressed rebellion. When I told them it was time for us to part company, their leader said with a sweetness that thinly veiled his hostility, “Well, Bill, you’ll always be on our prayer list.” I couldn’t help but ask, “And how does your prayer list differ from your shit list?”
Aside from nearly causing me to spit my coffee across my desk from laughter, he hit on an incredible insight. I saw this same hostility and smugness camouflaged as compassion while socializing with a group of fellow Christian students as an undergraduate, just a few years before the Great Extinction that killed off the dinosaurs. As repulsive as it was to see it in them, it became even more repulsive when I realized it wasn’t just in them, but in me as well. Since at that time I hadn’t been exposed to any other way of understanding Christianity, it caused a crisis of faith: Was the Jesus of the four gospels, whom I was intrigued by and drawn to, really trying to create a worldwide following of self-righteous pains-in-the-ass?
Unfortunately, that’s been the case all too often. In situations like the one Coffin describes, to say “I’ll be praying for you” is pure hostility, nothing more than saying “Go to hell” in Spiritualese, and we’ve all probably found ourselves engaging in it any number of times in our lives. To be clear, I recognize that most people who say, “I’ll be praying for you” to another person in some kind of real or perceived distress offer the sentiment with good, maybe even the best, intentions. But even in those times, and even if unintended, there’s a kind of hostility in the words that, if we really do care about the person, we should recognize. It’s very possible, to be honest, that the person may not want your prayers, at least at that moment in their faith journey, for reasons that you’ll never be aware of – and your unsolicited prayers for them in that moment will be considered a personal invasion, a kind of spiritual mugging. Maybe, in cases like that, and if we know that it’s a person of faith, it’s best to ask, “Would you like me to pray for you? And if so, just what would you want me to pray for?” Or maybe – again, if it’s a person of faith – “Would you like to pray about this now, together?” Other times, maybe we just decide to pray for the person without making the public service announcement about it. Telling someone “I’ll pray for you” can very easily make that person – and us as well – feel that when we do offer those prayers, we’ll be doing so from some position just a bit loftier than the person who is the object of our prayers. We have some better, more reliable track to God’s ear than they do; that Jesus loves them, but he loves us a little bit more, so we’ll use some of our own spiritual mojo to get this person’s application moved higher up in the Inbox on Jesus’ desk.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all anti-prayer. Some of the times in my life of deepest spiritual significance, and spiritual growth, have been times when I’ve shared in prayer with another person or small group of people, either as the person praying for another or as the person needing the prayer. Sometimes, though – and I’m not talking about the obvious hostile prayer-curses mentioned earlier – even with the best of intentions, the way we speak with others, the way we offer our prayers for others, inside the faith or out, can automatically reinforce the feeling of our difference instead of common humanity and brokenness. If we aren’t very careful, we can give the dangerous impression that we think we have all the answers, instead of humbly acknowledging that we don’t have many more answers than the other person – and often enough, even fewer answers – and are in need of prayer just as much as they are. Maybe instead of putting a spotlight on ourselves by announcing that we’ll be praying for the presence of Christ in the person’s life, we should just be it.