Phil was a 40 something divorced dad with 2 kids working in a job he hated and living a life filled with stress and heartache. Much of his anguish was admittedly self induced. He had been alcoholic since his mid 20s. His 10 years of marriage had been tumultuous, ending abruptly after one too many affairs on his part. When I first met Phil, he was only about six months into his divorce and he came to the church where I had only been working for about three months to talk to a pastor. The day Phil showed up was my day as the “pastor on call,” which meant that I was to sit down with him and listen to what was going on in his life. For the first 10 or 15 minutes we sat in awkward silence… him not knowing where to start, and me not knowing how to help him start. Then he just began telling me about his situation… about the years of drinking, the years of unfaithfulness, his children and the wife that he had neglected and lost, the jobs that he’d lost, the life that he had squandered. He said, “I’ve lived 40 plus years and I have nothing to show for it.”
The temptation for me in that moment was to respond with “No! no, no you haven’t… think about the kids you have, there is still time with them…” or “Hey, c’mon fella… Buck up! Life’s gonna get better real soon!” Platitudes. My mind was racing to say something to help this guy “cheer up.” But I knew that platitudes were not what he needed. In fact, platitudes have never helped anyone in the history of the world. Platitudes, like good intentions, pave the road to hell.
Instead, I said, “Phil… would it be ok if I prayed for you?” Now to a non-believer, I recognize that you immediately will say, “well dummy, platitude is what you offered the guy after all.” Well non-believer, you are more correct than I want to admit. Not because you are RIGHT that prayers are platitudes – but because in that moment, I offered prayer not because I “believed” it was going to do anything, but because I didn’t know what else to do.
So I began to pray with him… and he stopped me and said he wanted me to pray specifically for his ex wife to forgive him and give him another chance. So I did. He stopped me again to pray that his kids be able to forgive him. So I did. He stopped me a third time and asked me to pray that God would heal him of his alcoholism. So I did. We sat in that room for over an hour – me praying and him telling me additional things he wanted me to pray for. At the end, he said how much better he was feeling. We talked about actual next steps he should take… getting into AA, getting counseling, getting plugged back in to church… I even gave him my cell phone and told him to call me if he ever needed me. He was in such a better place it seemed … glimmers of hope shining through the dark clouds that had surrounded him.
I told him I was there for him and he hugged me… And I walked him out. I have to tell you that in that moment… he seemed to feel better and I felt pretty good.
The next morning I was at a meeting with the other pastors that I worked with at the time. One of them said that Phil, the guy I had spent nearly 2 hours with the previous day, had left our meeting and driven straight to where his ex-wife worked and that he had committed suicide in the parking lot of her work place. No note. No calls. No explanation.
That moment was one of the most difficult I have ever experienced. I fell to pieces. Phil had never once given even the slightest indication that suicide was something he had considered. He never mentioned that word. He never talked about wanting to end it all. How could this be? “God?,” I cried, “what happened?!? I prayed for you to intervene!” I prayed for you to comfort him! I prayed for you to heal!” but… when I prayed for Phil that day, as guilty as this makes me feel to admit, I didn’t expect God to do anything. I didn’t expect God to do anything because I could tell Phil wasn’t willing to do anything different… but I hadn’t said that to him.
He wanted God to be a genie in a lamp. He wanted me to tell the genie what to do. When I tried to talk about practical things he needed to do… like giving up his cheating ways, getting help with the alcoholism, going to counseling… he only had excuses about how he couldn’t do those things because of lots of reasons.
And so I prayed. I prayed because I wanted this guy to feel better and I thought my words to God would be more comforting than me just being there to listen.
But here’s the thing… Jesus talks about the way we should pray in Matthew 6 – specifically he lays out what we know as The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13… and specifically in verse 7 He tells us how not to pray. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
That was the mistake I made then. It’s the mistake I hope you don’t make. It’s the mistake I don’t make any longer.
For example, now, if talk to someone who has marital trouble – we start with prayer… but it’s prayer that we move forward in honesty, integrity and faith to work through the problems. If there has been cheating – the cheating has to stop, forgiveness has to be sought, and there is probably atonement that will have to be made. The prayer can’t be, “God, fix this broken marriage, Amen.” and then nothing else is done except to wait for God to clean up the mess. Yes we can absolutely pray for God to help mend it – and sometimes it absolutely takes divine intervention to bring complete healing for a broken marriage… but it has to start with movement from the person who caused the wounded-ness or brokenness to show the other person they are sincerely working to bring health back to the relationship.
Consider this final scenario as you think about prayer … 2 people are both dieting because they need to lose a good deal of weight for their weight… let’s say 50 pounds. Both ask you to pray for them in achieving their weight loss. You agree. Your prayers for both are – “Father, please help both of these friends to achieve their goal. Help heal them in the health issues they face. Give them strength, wisdom and ultimately, peace. Amen.” 6 months later, the first person tells you great news! I lost the 50 pounds I needs to lose! Thanks so much for your prayers!!” But person 2 says, “I don’t get it!! I’ve actually gained 12 pounds! Weren’t you praying?” You prayed for both but only 1 hit their goal. You ask both of them to tell you what they did in the 6 month period you were praying for them… Person 1 says, “I ate healthy. I exercised daily. I was disciplined. And I felt your prayers and encouragement.” Person 2 says, “What do you mean, ‘tell you what I did?’ – I didn’t do anything. You were praying for me to lose the weight! Weren’t you?!?” It’s just not reasonable to treat our prayer life this way.
My experience with Phil will always be my reminder to not offer platitudes… to not heap up empty phrases… to not just ask God to rescue while I walk away. Know that if you ask me to pray for something I absolutely will and I absolutely believe God will hear our prayers together… but it will also be with the encouragement that you never stand still and wait for Him to do something. Instead, it will be with the encouragement that you pursue Him with reckless abandon and live your life for Him, every day, in every way.
Jason Rehmel is the Lead Pastor at Eastside Christian Church on the east side of Cincinnati. If you are someone who has had a terrible experience(s) at a church or churches – stop by some weekend and give it one more shot with Eastside. Whether you have felt judged, or dismissed, or unwanted – wherever it has been – Eastside is different.