I can’t identify the voice; in truth, it’s not just one voice, but an amalgam of saints and sinners, strangers on the internet and in the pages of books and magazines, who have coalesced into one, constant drumbeat in my head. Over and over it sounds: “Thy will be done;” “Not as I will it, oh Lord;” “Be it done unto me.” These are the noble, classical phrases it likes to use, but there are others, less clear but all the more insistent, that say I must never ask for anything for myself when I pray. I must pray for God’s will to be done, and only that. I should intercede for others, but ask nothing for myself. I should be selfless before God, coming with others’ needs but none of my own. I should be nothing.
Managing a Prayer for Myself
I never knew I had a problem with prayer until things got rough: My husband is out of work, my kids look like they’re outgrowing our longstanding homeschool routine, I’m struggling with my place in a church wracked by scandal. It doesn’t help that every other headline I read is about the squeezing of the middle-class, the crisis of health-care costs, the country tearing itself apart politically, and the looming threat of coronavirus. With all that, there’s a lot to pray for. And while I can wax rhapsodic on my knees for the sake of others, I just can’t seem to manage a prayer for myself in the midst of all this anxiety.
I’ve tried: Very daringly and feeling like I’m breaking every rule in the book, I have been asking God to give my husband a good job offer, in our area, now. I’m asking for something very, very specific and trembling the whole time. Secretly, I’m hoping that this qualifies as learning whatever lesson God wants me to get from all this, so that he can lay off with the learning opportunities, but so far it hasn’t worked. Morning and night, and several times in between, I am muttering this request to God, crossing my fingers, and hoping. Morning and night, I am disappointed and trying not to show it, not to God, not to anyone. I’m running out of hope, but despair is a sin, so I can’t go down that road. I just have to smile and keep praying. But not for myself. For God’s will to be done, which is apparently that we eat through our savings and die, uninsured, of CoVid-19.
I’m catastrophizing, of course. I learned that word from self-help books I started reading a few years back, but it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) two years ago that I started to understand why I catastrophize so much. OCD is, in essence, a disorder of fear; it seeks the worst in everything and tries to prepare for and prevent that worst from happening. It sees disaster everywhere and tries to save the world. It’s Batman, essentially. And right now, it’s on overdrive: Batman in a mechanized batsuit laying down the law all over Gotham City. And that law says that prayer is for other people, that asking for specific things and praying for myself is wrong, selfish, sinful, Joker-levels of bad. So every time I pray, I am fighting Batman and pretending to win. In reality, though, Batman never loses.
I’m losing. I am realizing, in ways I never have before, that I don’t know how to pray as I ought. I do not at all know how to trust God. I have always operated on the principle that if I just worked hard enough, everything would work out. This is what I have called “trusting God”: I work my tail off, and he makes everything okay. I remember my confusion when, in grad school, a friend explained that that’s not faith; faith is trusting that it will be okay when everything doesn’t work out. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Well, here I am, with nothing working out. I cannot make anyone hire my husband. I cannot make homeschooling work for my kids, or dictate my own place in a church community. I can wash my hands, but I can’t stop a pandemic. Batman has me in a headlock, and I am tapping the mat.
Praying for Strength
Religious scrupulosity is a common form of OCD. Fighting it can look strange: A popular self-help book for OCD says, “Stop doing whatever spiritual activity you feel you just have to do for fear of something terrible happening. While on the surface this may look like abandoning spiritual practices, in these situations the practices are no longer spiritual activities; they’re rituals—symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.” In my case, praying for myself causes anxiety—because it is “wrong” to me—so I want to back off and pray blandly and vaguely for nothing, in order to feel right again. This is Batman beating me into submission. But there’s God, waiting for me to say what it is I really want. For me, the only way to beat Batman is to resist: to pray “selfishly” and specifically for my needs, in spite of the anxiety and discomfort, without reverting to trying to be nothing before God. I can only get out of Batman’s headlock by being something.
So, starting today, my prayer is not for God’s will to be done. It isn’t even (solely) for my husband to get a good job offer, in our area, now. It’s for me: to get through this rough time intact, to learn to trust God when things aren’t working out and I can’t fix them, to learn to stop trying to fix them, to have the strength to keep fighting Batman or—better yet—the strength to ask God to kick his butt. I’ll still have to do the work, to resist my compulsions and go to therapy. But I won’t be fighting alone anymore, because I won’t be no one and nothing. I’ll be something and someone, with God right there, no matter how things work out.