I recently tweeted the following:
“Please don’t tell people that if they pray hard enough, they’ll get what they want.
And please, please don’t tell them that if they had prayed better, they would have gotten it.
That’s not how it works.”
I generally elaborate on my tweets in the captions of Instagram posts, and here was the caption of this one:
“Prayer is complex.
It can be personal, spiritual, heart-wrenching, uplifting, devastating, exhilarating, humbling, boring, fascinating and more.
But what it is not, is a candy machine. It’s not like a good prayer is a crisp dollar bill, and immediately and predictably yields our treat, but a bad, crumpled one gets spit out and leaves us without our M&M’s.
There are many holy righteous people who offer magnificent lofty prayers, and do not see the results they hope for. There are many non-praying people who seem to easily receive that which many others beg the Heavens for.
There is little to no observable, quantifiable correlation between the quality and quantity of prayer and whether, when, or how requests are “granted.”
Prayer is part of a relationship, it is communication between the soul and the Divine. It has value and merit regardless of what happens next.
No one can guarantee the “outcome” of any specific prayer.
Nor can we know why someone didn’t get what they prayed for, however pious they may be.
To tell someone suffering that they aren’t or didn’t pray well enough is cruel and inaccurate.
They used to teach us, “God always answers, but sometimes the answer is no.” The thing is, a definitive, verbal “no” would be clear. Sometimes it feels like a “not yet.” Or “try harder,” or as there is no answer at all, which is really hard.
We’re not completely privy to the mechanics of how prayer “works.”
Prayer is not compensation; it’s expression. It’s not demand; but dialectic.
It always matters, and it always counts.”
In general, I am a poor predictor of which posts will resonate widely and be reshared, which will largely go unacknowledged, and which will spark debate or opposition. (Part of the fun of the internet!). On both Twitter and Instagram, this post evoked more response than I usually do (response levels are relative:)
It felt worthy of a longer form of elucidation. Probably a book or five, but I’ll settle for an article for now.
Before Yom Kippur, some of my clients shared feelings along the lines of the following:
“Last year, I prayed and cried so fervently on Yom Kippur. I continued to beg God to save me from my troubles. But I still had a painful year with all the same challenges. So what’s the point? Why should I pray? Either it doesn’t work, or I’m just not good enough at it. I feel so alone and ignored.”
This is one of those times where theology and psychology intersect very sensitively. I may believe in the same God as they do, or possibly a different version, but I’m neither a prophet nor a religious scholar. It’s not my place to preach or philosophize for them. But it is therapeutic to analyze relationships for the purpose of healing and repair. And the relationship with God, for many people, is incredibly significant.
So I shared something along the lines of the following:
“I wish I had magic words to make you feel all better, happy, and optimistic about all this.
In the time we’ve been working together, I’ve often wished and prayed for magic solutions to your pain.
What I do know is this:
We are not the first people to feel that our prayers are not answered in the way and time frame we want them to be.
We are not the first to wonder about God’s plan, His love or caring when we can’t feel or see it, or how this messy world works altogether.
We are not the first ones to suffer, question, cry, and rage against the confusion and frustration of this all.
We’re not the only ones to feel alone or isolated in our struggles, choosing to turn inward rather than share with others.
People have had it much easier, and some have had it much harder.
People have enjoyed more blessings, and some have endured more pain.
We exist as part of the human population- everyone trying our best to be as good as we can in our own limited ways, with little to no indication from Above whether it’s “working.”
What I do know is that people can often survive.
We cry, we ache, we question, we crawl into bed sometimes, but most of the time, we get back up again.
We don’t always have clear answers.
The harder life gets, the harder the questions become, and the harder it can feel to connect to joy, to ourselves, and to God.
But hard doesn’t mean impossible.
It means work, patience, and self-compassion.
Maybe this year, expect less of yourself.
Maybe the goal for this Yom Kippur is to simply get through it.
Maybe it’s ok to feel the sadness, and it’s not the end of the world if the people you love see that and give you some love, even if you don’t want to share details with them.
Maybe, if you do choose to pray, you can tell God honestly in your own words how you feel- including the hurt, confusion, and fear. Or not.
As I said, there are no magic words here. Just validation, empathy, and my own humble prayers for you.
You’ve been through trauma. As far as I can tell, you didn’t deserve it.
But in this world, we don’t necessarily get what we deserve. And that makes it hard and scary.
And. Still there is hope. There is survival. There is crying and trying and moving forward. Be gentle with yourself and your family.
Keep fighting for your health and your happiness, not every minute, but over time.
We don’t know how long it will take, but every journey is always one step at a time.
Hoping you feel the fruits of all your efforts very, very soon.”
This message was appropriate for its recipients; it won’t be for everyone.
And that’s the thing about our relationships with God and self. They’re not all the same; they’re unique to who we are and our experiences. That’s true of our prayers, our life missions, and our destinies. So how we interact with our prayers and how God interacts with us is deeply subjective and outstrips a simplistic notion of “getting what we asked for.”
I once heard a Rabbi say that his parent was very sick when he was a teen. Someone asked him how he was doing and he replied: “It’s hard, but we’re all praying, and so I have emunah (belief/ faith) that my parent will have a full recovery.”
The adult who’d asked him, and probably knew that the prognosis was grim, replied: “It’s important that we’re praying. But emunah doesn’t mean believing we’ll get the outcome we want. It means believing Hashem’s there and knows what He’s doing.”
The Rabbi said this comment was a vital reset for him, especially because his parent did end up passing. Had his faith been contingent on a happy ending, the loss could have destroyed him.
I heard that story many years ago, but it stuck with me. Faith, trust, and belief in God is not and can not be predicated on conditional outcomes. That’s just not how this world works. Holy people worldwide, for generations, have prayed for peace, health, and redemption, and were not granted it in any visible way.
What are we to do on the frequent occasions when our prayers go “unanswered”?
That depends on the definition of prayer.
Prayer consists of not just requests, but expressions of gratitude, admiration, humility, yearning, self-evaluation, meditation, emotion, transcendence, and rumbling. It’s an introspective process, not a grocery list. When we tap into any of those processes in a way that resonates with our souls, the prayer always “works,” in that it creates a spiritual connection and elevates those moments for us.