The other day, I heard quite possible the best discussion on prayer I've ever heard. The surprising thing was this: it didn't happen in a sermon, a small group, or a Bible study. It happened in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
See, I'm currently taking a course in the Psychological Aspects of Substance Abuse (that makes me sound smarter than I am), and we had to visit a 12-step support group to help us understand how they work. (Before you get worried I was rudely intruding, there are 'open' groups that allow visitors and observers to come to the meetings.)
During this particular meeting, they were discussing the 11th Step, which states the following:
"Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will and the power to carry that out."
This hit me in a particular way, because I spend a decent amount of hearing people say things like this:
"I asked for help with my depression/anxiety/insert mental health concern here at church and was told I just needed to pray more."
Now: I'm not here to attack anyone, but so often after statements like that comes a heart-breaking tale of people who tried desperately for years to find a way out of their struggle before either giving up or deciding on their own that counseling was an acceptable option.
It's like we've somehow come to believe that prayer and action are a dichotomy. This applies to all areas: oftentimes after tragedies we find people sending 'thoughts and prayers' to those who are hurting, while others fume about the lack of action being taken.
For many of us, we've come to see prayer as a way to get God to do something the way we want it done. In the case of those struggling with mental health, this often translates to this: 'God, give me a magical cure for this pain.'
What if prayer is something more than that?
From the Alcoholics Anonymous book, going into more detail about Step 11:
Prayer, as commonly understood, is a petition to God...
Our immediate temptation will be to ask for specific solutions to specific problems, and for the ability to help other people as we have already thought they should be helped. In that case, we are asking God to do it our way...This means that side by side with an earnest prayer there can be a certain amount of presumption and conceit in us...
We discover that we do receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms." *Emphasis mine.
You can read the rest of the chapter here, and I really suggest you do. (I had a much longer excerpt before cutting it down.)
What it's getting at is this: when we pray for specific types of healing (or other specific solutions to problems), we're assuming we have the best answer.
The danger in this (aside from the pride involved), is that it lets us off the hook.
"Well, I prayed for God's healing," we say. "Nothing more to be done."
But what if, as Step 11 describes, we prayed to be closer to God's will and to carry it out instead?
Notice that second part? This type of prayer requires action. Pray, then move.
This is where I'm headed, to relate back to the beginning: There's not a dichotomy between praying for healing and getting professional help. There's just not. (Tweet)
We don't see this kind of thinking in physical treatments either: we pray for someone's healing while they're getting the surgery or treatments. Why can't we be praying for someone's healing while encouraging them to step into counseling? Isn't it possible that counseling or medication will be the way God answers your prayers for healing? (Tweet)
This type of prayer, the kind where we pray and move, offers us something amazing: it offers us a way into the healing. Instead of seeing God do the miracle of instant cures, we get to participate in the miracle of gradual healing. The kind of healing that takes community, and sitting with someone in their pain for longer than we'd like to. It offers us a chance to sacrifice our time and energy and comfort and need for progress (because after months of someone not getting better, we get frustrated), all for the sake of loving our friends who are in pain.
Maybe this is the heart of God: to invite us into what He's doing instead of having us watch Him move from the sidelines. It might even be better, because while instant cures are great, walking with someone through a long season of pain gives us compassion and patience and a whole bunch of other things that make us look more like Jesus.
So yes: those of us that are hurting want you to pray for us. Pray for your family member who's depressed. Pray for your fellow church member whose anxiety has kept then from attending in weeks. Pray for the person who you've heard is battling an addiction or a manic episode or any other thing.
And then offer to drive them to a counselor.
Pray, and then move.