What I hear when told ‘I’ll pray for you’

In a semi-regular column space in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review, where I work as the Arts & Entertainment editor, I recently wrote a piece entitled “The experience of losing one’s religion.” In brief, it started by referencing a conversation I had with a fellow non-believer, and how this person wasn’t publicly out as such because of fear of repercussion from family. It was a lovely little piece in which I elucidated on all manners of details important to the up-and-coming apostate.
So anyway, I wrote it, it published, and people read it. Grand Rapids is in Minnesota – not quite the Bible belt, but it’s a small town that is plenty full of the devout. I knew what to expect. I had written pieces in the past that weren’t god-flattering. But this one was different.
On the morning of the Monday following the published column, a pastor from a local church actually came to the office to talk to me. There he was, a relatively young man who wouldn’t typically be confused with being a man of the cloth, what with his shaved bald head and leather coat, asking me if I knew Nathan Bergstedt. “Well, that’s me,” I responded. There was my column, being held in the right hand of this man of god. Not wanting to be accused of misrepresentation, he quickly drew his card for me. Sure enough, this leather-coated gentleman was a pastor, and he wanted to ask me some questions about my former faith. Well, I can certainly say that I was taken aback. Up to this point, I had never received a visitor on account of an opinion column.
I took off work for the next hour and we had coffee together. As it turns out, his primary reason for coming to see me was to ask me in person if I would come to his church the following Sunday. Flattered, I agreed to come. After all, he went through the trouble to visit me at my work; the least I could do is return the favor. After close to an hour of theological debate, he told me he would pray for me and we parted ways.
Over the next couple days, there were a few more responses. None of them were angry. But they appeared to come instead from a place that more closely resembled pity. Each instance was recognized by the ubiquitous “I’ll pray for you” statement.
I’LL pray for you. I’ll PRAY for you. I’ll pray for YOU. There’s something about this phrase that is taken as inherently polite in our society. It’s a phrase that almost immediately begs a “thank you” when told to you. How nice, this person is taking time out of their busy day to consider me and to ask god to help me. Now, if you don’t believe in god or the efficacy of prayer in general, there’s an automatic problem right up front with this saying. The second problem though, for me specifically in my situation, is that there was nothing wrong with me. I’m simply a person who doesn’t believe in god or the efficacy of prayer in general.
Here’s a picture. I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. The doctors are doing all they can, but it doesn’t look good. Modern medicine, for all it has accomplished in others, is at best delaying my oh-too inevitable death, and some random person peeks their head into my room to say that they’ll pray for me tonight. This kind stranger is keeping me in his or her thoughts and has a deep desire that my body rid itself of the cancer that is slowly destroying it. How can one not appreciate that at some level? At this point, whether or not prayer works isn’t the matter. It’s the fact that someone who has never met me before, but who knows that all known worldly measures to cure me are not working, is hoping for a miracle so that I might be spared.
The above picture is pure fiction, but it’s a clear-cut instance where one praying for me would be more than appreciated. Coming back to reality, what does it really mean when someone says that they’ll pray for you, simply because you don’t share their beliefs? After spending just a short period of time considering this question, it strikes me more as a backhanded compliment than anything else. I mean, what if I’m happy the way I am? What if things are going well for me, and I’m mentally and emotionally satisfied with my life? Why would you hope for that to change? Sure, one can decide that the person really didn’t mean it that way, that they meant well, but that’s no excuse to be talked to in such a manner. A Christian Scientist parent who refuses to give their dying child drugs that could potentially save its life means well too, but of course this doesn’t excuse the ignorance-driven nearly-murderous inaction. So too does a phrase like “I’ll pray for you” stink of a veiled insult.
Fact of the matter is that the time of my apostasy has been the happiest and most fulfilling years of my life to date. It’s been a time of great self-discovery, as well as a time of understanding of the natural world that I had previously been less curious about. The idea of god was always just an assumed principle when it came to the world I viewed around me. I’ve heard this referred to as god-goggles before, and I’ll stick with that phrase. During the time that I consistently wore my god-goggles, an immediate solution arose for any problem that seemed at face value to be too difficult to readily answer, and that answer was typically “god did it.” And what’s more, even when I thought that the answer of “god did it” didn’t quite have the merit that it should have, that another answer seemed better, there was a fear that if I didn’t choose the “god did it” answer, that I was being sinful in thought. I was mentally bullied against my better judgment, and the feeling that I wasn’t being entirely truthful with myself never fully went away.
This feeling I had is what is typically known as one’s conscious, daemon, or inner critic. Though I didn’t have the courage to face myself on these questions and answers, my conscious knew that I wasn’t being honest, that I was merely going along with my immediate crowd for fear of being singled out as a doubting Thomas. But it’s worse than all that. This fear extended beyond what friends and family thought of me. No, there was also the fear that I would offend my creator to such an extent that I would be banished to hell for all eternity for daring to question him. This was exponentially worse than the possibility of offending friends and family. From the age which I began to understand the tenants of my former religion to any degree, it was driven home that the first thing in my life had to be my faith, and anything else in my life, including family, had to come second at best. All honor and glory to god.
But throughout this time, I kept noticing details of the world around me that didn’t line up with the teachings of the church. As an obvious example, we’ll use the existence of dinosaur fossils. Though my former church didn’t have an “official” stance on whether or not dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago, it was widely understood amongst the congregation that the fossils were there to test our faith, because no such creatures were referenced in the Bible. It doesn’t need to be explained by me here that this is insanity to a wild degree. Though it wasn’t simply dinosaurs that made me question my faith, it was certainly a problem that contributed to my eventual seeking of a more honest truth about the reality in which we all live.
My desire for open inquiry, honest discussion, and general curiosity were forever at odds with my religious pretense. Like many, I became a master at compartmentalization, which put my faith in one box, and everything else in the world that I knew in another box, and never the twain shall meet. But in time, even this wasn’t satisfying. My faith was supposed to be number one in my life, and what’s more, it was supposed to be the solution to all my problems. It didn’t make sense that I should be as so incurious about it. If indeed the Bible and my Christian beliefs were the inherent truth of the world, revealed by god himself, then any propositions I were to throw at it shouldn’t be a problem.
For anyone who has ever come to this point in their life where they decided to take a critical look at what it is the Bible professes, it should be obvious enough why I came to the conclusions that I did.
It was this time that was the most difficult. Facing the facts that flew in the face of everything I had come to believe throughout my entire life, I was mentally torn on what to do, what to say, and even down to how to think. The conviction that Jesus was the savior of the world and that the universe was created by god in six days was unraveling, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. Ultimately, I spoke to someone, a relative stranger, who I figured could empathize to some degree and who had no real stake in my situation. This was a much needed pressure release, and probably saved me from doing something I would have very much regretted.
In the end, or more accurately, up to now, I’ve been much more satisfied with my life since shedding the dogma of unsubstantiated beliefs. I’ve had experiences that weren’t previously allowed to me, entertained thoughts freely that before would’ve been stifled by fear of a relentlessly power-hungry deity, and had the opportunity to view my friends and family in a light that was before not allowed to me, namely as viewing them as more important than a fear of god.
So praying that I find salvation in Jesus again? As far as anything my life experience has taught me, that life of mental servitude wherein I was driven to near madness on account of the inconsistencies that I was unable to question, let alone do anything about, is one of the worse things I could hope for myself, and yet apparently I should also consider it a good thing when someone tells me that they’ll pray for me to find my way back to this place. I politely say ‘No thank you’ to this suggestion. Less politely, I would rather use a phrase like ‘Fuck off,’ but there’s no sense in ending the conversation so abruptly. No, rather I would like to take some of these opportunities with the pious to let them know what I really think. It’s the reason why I had coffee with the pastor that day, as well as part of the reason why I took him up on his offer and attended his church service the following Sunday. After seeing the reverend pound away at the Bible before his flock, charismatically expounding the high ideals of faith in Christ, was I reconvinced? Obviously, I wasn’t in the slightest. No, instead I found it humorous at its high point, and disgusting at its low (I don’t care what anyone tells me, the story of how Abraham was about to murder his son Isaac, without question and simply because he was told to, has no redeeming value. If you think I’m wrong, consider what you would do if told to do the same to your children).
Regardless of what I think, saying “I’ll pray for you” will undoubtedly continue to be a polite phrase in our society. But with any luck, as those without faith in a creator or a redeemer become a larger segment of the population, and a more vocal one at that, perhaps the faithful will eventually feel less need to say such things after they find out that there really is little to pray for in someone like me. Unless of course they are actually wishing a winning lottery ticket upon me, but I’m not so certain they are.



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4 Responses to “What I hear when told ‘I’ll pray for you’”

  1. laurenc0812 Says:

    Well done! I feel like you wrote exactly what I was thinking in my head. Being someone who doesn’t believe in God is like being someone who is a prostitute. It’s like believers look at you and think, you poor thing you need help. No, I don’t need help. Some are scared to just look at the facts.

    I actually asked my mom one time a few years ago, but WHY? Tell me a reason, and she had no answer but to “have faith”. Believing in God is just about having faith.

    I am not this unmoral, murderous human being now that I don’t believe in God and can say it out loud. I’ve been thinking it for quite some time, but was afraid to say it down for the fear of being strikes down by lighting from Him. (lol) I still have moral and values and I don’t believe you should be mean to people for being different, but I just think believing in something in the clouds is just silly.

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. William H. Tucker Says:

    I am going to keep this brief…or try. Here is a hopefully amusing scenario:

    A long time from now, NATHAN walks through a cotton white cloud, amused, and comments aloud, “Obviously sophomoric staging.” he reaches out to touch the cloud, pulls it apart, and is not surprised at it being, in fact, a ball of cotton. “Yup.”
    An old gentleman dressed in a white sheet, displaying a long beard and having a serene countenance appears amidst the large supply of cotton wadding. “Welcome,” he says pleasantly.
    Nathan looks up. “You know, you’d think you guys could have done the set up a little better than this.”
    “We didn’t wan to disappoint you.”
    “Dissapoint me?”
    “Yes. We did a demographic study late last millenia and found most of your ilk wander around the æther forever if we showed you what it was really like. So, these days, i cater a little.”
    A realization strikes Nathan as he stares into the face of the being that speaks. “Oh …my …God!”
    “No,” says the great being. “Not yours, anyway. You made that abundantly clear long ago.”
    Nathan, being good natured at heart, takes a step back. ” I didn’t mean to offend. I mean, it’s just that…with all of those strange and weird things going on in the Bible, it’s pretty hard to believe any of it.”
    “I knew you would say that. Why do you think we call it ‘faith’, sir?”
    “I knew you’d say that.”
    “You want a place with the Cynical Mimics Society? Small, but tough little group. They meet every Tuesday at the Celestial Coffeehouse.”
    “I’ll have to check that out,” smiles Nathan as he pushes his hat back on his head. “How’s the coffee?”
    The unlikely pair drift off into the cotton together…

    • Mavin Says:

      Is that how it’s gonna go?… I can handle that. Hell, provided they’re good sports about the whole lack of blind-faith, I think we’ll get along swimmingly in the hereafter if it comes to that.

  3. William Tucker Says:

    Ay, now there’s the rub! (To fracture Shakespeare down the middle.)

    I have an issue with your approach to those who wish to pray for you. Yes, according to you, they are wasting their time, but it is their time to waste. Moreover, I am not sure all of them necessarily pity you, though I grant you that some of them might. But again, it’s not their approach I have issue with, but yours. You say that they think something is wrong when you know nothing is wrong. However, to them, there IS something wrong. You see?

    And you, of course, think something is terribly wrong with them. It’s a comic opera of tit for tat and I am trying my best not to laugh uproariously at all of it. I want to be respectful to all faiths and philosophies. I don’t want to offend anyone, but at the end of the day, all I can do is to play out these comic scenarios in my mind.

    I have an alternative scenario for those who believe in the tall, white-cloaked fellow as well. It’s one that begins with a small, black woman approaching out the fog and welcoming them to Heaven in HER name.

    This is all of it SPECULATION as far as I am concerned.

    For the record, I listen to both Frank Zappa and Van Morrison. But I listen more often to one than the other. Allow me please the freedom to do so. I will do the same for you.

    I believe in something greater than myself. What that is, or who that may be, is beyond my ken…and my barbie…and all of my action figures. (To steal a line from either David Fury or Joss Whedon.) Hell, it may be that you, my friend, are something greater than I. It’s fairly possible.

    What some do not wish to believe, in their greedy, egotistical realities, is that it is beyond those who believe in Vishnu, The Great White Bird, a christian “God”, the Ancient Ones, the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, or what-have-you.

    “GOD” is beyond any of us. Beyond you and I, or those who wrote the book on “God”. I won’t challenge the faithful and I appreciate their humoring me and you, though we are slightly different in our beliefs.

    Having written all of this, however, I do not pity you, nor do I feel anything is wrong with you. A very wise man once said, “Everybody in the world…is bent.” That was a very wise man, indeed. I know that more scoundrels, liars, charlatans, thieves and politicians have wrapped themselves in a flag and preached the word of God as they went about sheering the flock. So call me skeptical, at best, about anyone’s real faith. It’s the one’s who do not approach you, the ones who do not send cards, the ones who speak not a word about their faith that I feel are the truly worthy among us humans, being. The rest of us? We’re just venturing in the slipstream between the viaducts of their dreams. We’re dumb like that. God made man in His own image. So if we’re dumb, it must mean that God is dumb. And maybe even a little ugly on the side,


    Dumb all over!
    A little ugly on the side!
    Dumb all over!
    A little ugly on the side!
    Lay me down
    In silence easy
    To be born again…
    To be born again…
    To be born again…
    In another world…
    In another world…
    In another time.
    Got a home on high
    Ain’t nothing but a stranger in this world
    I’m nothing but a stranger in this world
    I got a home on high
    In another land
    So far away
    So far away
    Way up in the heaven
    Way up in the heaven
    Way up in the heaven
    Way up in the heaven
    In another time
    In another place
    In another time
    In another place
    Way up in the heaven
    Way up in the heaven
    We are goin’ up to heaven
    We are goin’ to heaven
    In another time
    In another place
    In another time
    In another place
    In another face

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