I had a conversation with a friend over the last couple of days. I won’t go into specifics to protect the people involved, but this friend is in the unfortunate situation of being surrounded by people with problems.
One of those people called on Tuesday night. It was a two-hour conversation. I asked how it went. Short version: The caller received a long list of things to do that will help solve the problem. But my friend wasn’t optimistic and fully expects to hear back from this person again in a couple of weeks, miserable as ever, and having not done a single thing on the list.
Someone else in this person’s life is facing a horrible disease. This disease wasn’t my dad’s area of specialty, but it was an area of interest for him. He wrote about a form of the disease in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in 1979. I wished aloud that Dad was still alive so I could get his opinion on what this person needs.
Then I realized it doesn’t take Dad’s Bachelor’s degrees in physics, chemistry and biology and his Doctorate of Osteopathy and his 23 years of practicing medicine to understand what this second person needs. I don’t know much about this second person’s needs, but I saw a common thread between the first and the second.
Neither of them want help enough.
I’ve been there. I battled depression from the ages of about 14 to 21. I wasn’t willing to do anything about it until spring of 1995. I was used to it and I’d always managed to live with it. Part of me believed I thrived off it. My favorite writers were always depressed, so to me, being pessimistic and gloomy all the time was an asset. And I still believe to this day that some of the best stuff I ever wrote was written during a mood swing. I knew–or at least suspected–that I had a problem, but I wanted that problem.
Then one day, that problem became too much to bear. I woke up one morning and realized I couldn’t live like that anymore.
I relapsed a couple of years later. You see, I hadn’t wanted the depression to go away. I just wanted a milder form of it. Or I wanted to be able to invite it back over for a visit, because it was my crutch. I was fortunate. When it came back, it came back harder. It crushed me under its weight. I couldn’t get to work on time anymore, and when I did get there, I was unproductive. Most of the people I worked with couldn’t stand to be around me. My friends from that time period felt sorry for me, but I only have one friend left from those days. Some of those friendships would have gone away anyway, but I think part of it was just that it was too much work to be my friend right about then.
I knew life couldn’t go on that way. And in both cases, getting help was a lot of work. I came away from my therapy sessions with more homework than I got from some of my college-level classes. And the work was harder than a lot of my 300-level Journalism classes.
When you’re lurking in the Valley of the Shadow of whatever, and it took a culmination of events that took place over a lifetime to get you there, you can’t expect a two-hour phone conversation to change it. And you can’t expect it to go away on its own.
But I wanted to beat it badly enough. I was willing to do my homework. I wanted it gone, at any cost. If that meant I’d never write again, so be it. Better to be unpublished and happy than published and miserable. And–this will come as a shock to some, and as an “oh, duh!” to others–once I was rid of my problem, I found I didn’t need it. I went on to publish a book that went so far as to be Amazon.com’s #1 seller in Canada for a couple of weeks–and the concept was something I thought of after therapy, so it’s not like I developed it in depression and saved it up for afterward–and then I published a handful of magazine articles across the Atlantic.
So take it from me. You can turn around, even when you think you have everything to lose by facing your problem and getting it fixed.
So how do you pray for someone who doesn’t want help?
I think it helps to remember that there is one prayer that God will always answer yes to, no matter who prays it, no matter when they pray it, and no matter how they pray it. When someone says get lost, God complies immediately. And when our lives without Him become so miserable that we can’t take it anymore and we want Him back, He’ll come back even more quickly than He left, if that’s possible. But I think those are the only two prayers that are guaranteed to be answered with a yes.
When a person doesn’t want help from you or me or their doctor or their therapist, they don’t want help from God either. And it’s not really in God’s character to butt in uninvited and give unwanted help to somebody. It seems like sometimes He intervenes anyway, but I have to wonder if it isn’t because His back was against the wall and He had to do it for somebody else’s sake. (This is just me talking; don’t get any ideas about me being a prophet or anything.)
So how do you effectively pray for someone in that situation?
I think it’s pretty simple. They have to want help. They have to want it enough to be willing to change. I knew I was on the right track when I wanted my depression gone so badly that I didn’t care if I ever wrote effectively again. I was willing to pay any price to beat my problem, including giving up the most important part of my identity.
You can’t truly be helped until your problem is so big and so crushing that you’re willing to do absolutely anything to get rid of it. My friend Mark once said that nobody knows that they have the will to survive until they really need it. I’d rather say nobody knows that they have the will to survive until they really want and need it. Mark would probably agree. He didn’t say it in so many words, but I got the distinct impression that he didn’t really want the will to survive until he had to pick out his own coffin. The problem wasn’t real to him until then. But something about picking out a coffin did it for him. But once the problem became real and he wanted to beat it, he did. “There’s no way… I was going to let them put me in that box,” he told me. And even though it was more than 10 years after the fact, he still had the determination of a marathon runner in his eyes when he talked about it.
So when a person doesn’t want help, I think it’s premature to pray for healing. Pray for the problem to become real to the person who has it. Pray for the problem to become crushing if necessary. Pray for something to happen that will make the person want help. At any price. It hurts to pray like that for someone you love. Even when you know God loves that person more than you do.
I know, as Christians we’re supposed to pray for miracles. But you know what? I’ve spent a lot of time around apathetic people. I think being cured of apathy is a bigger miracle than being cured of almost any disease. Praying that way still leaves plenty of room for God to work, which opens the door to lots of other nice possibilities, like praying with that person be so much better than merely praying for that person. And of course, that’s the perfect time to pray for that second miracle.
Two words come to mind (pity they’re ‘buzzwords’): “denial” and “ownership”. Those two have to be dealt with. …and we can pray for those two items to come into focus for someone.
Good stuff, Dave. It’s important for us to keep in mind that we always need to pray “in Jesus’ name”, which implies that we need to pray for what Jesus wants to pray for. Not “what Jesus would want to pray for” as if He were dead – of course He’s alive and able to communicate His wishes to us.
So how do we know what the Spirit of Jesus wants to pray through us? Of course being full of His word will help us understand a little bit of His mind and purposes, in general. But much more important on a day-to-day, real-time basis is for us to strive for the type of relationship with Him that inclides regular two-way conversation. Most Christians have had some experiences with this, but we all need much more of it.
Many people seem to have the idea that such a relationship with God isn’t possible, or was only for people in the Bible, or could only work for people MUCH better than they are. But the experience that I have, and others I know have, is that God will speak to anyone who will really listen with the intention of acting on what He says. God WANTS to tell us how to pray, and many other things. It’s our busyness and lack of faith that often deafens us to His voice.
It’s kind of hard to speak abotu these things without inadvertantly implying that the speaker is some kind of Holy Joe super-saint. But the fact is that God is able to speak to many people that we wouldn’t expect Him to. Even me. Even you. Even us.
How? Like any important relationship, we have to put time and effort into it. How many marriages have foundered because people simply got too busy for each other and “grew apart”? If we want God to speak to us, we need to spend time apart with Him regularly, like a husband and wife that still make the time to go out on “dates”. And we have to keep Him in our everyday thoughts, as well. I find one thing that helps me with this is to form a new mental habit when referring to the Lord in my own thought life – every time I think of the Lord as “Him” or “the Lord” or anything in the third person, as if He were far away in another place, I force myself to correct it to “You”, reminding myself that He is right here, inside my head with me, all the time. He hears every thought in my head, whether I’m praying to Him or not. When I make that correction in my thoughts, I switch from thinking ABOUT Him to talking TO Him.
Keeping that in mind helps me to be constantly reminded of His actual, genuine, real world presence with me and in me at all times. It helps me to speak to Him more frequently, and to form a mental image of Him that is close and immediate, not far away. And that in turn helps me to pay more attention to Him, so that He can speak to me if He wants.
How does He speak to us? All the ways that we see mentioned in the Bible. A secret whisper in our hearts, a dream in the night, a vision… Lots of times the Bible says something like “And the Lord spoke unto So-and-so and said…” How did the Lord speak to So-and-so? Same ways I just mentioned. He never changes.
So the best way to know how to pray for somebody is to keep asking Him until He tells me. Am I good at this? Not very. Do I expect to improve? You bet I do. Practice makes perfect.