The Unuttered Prayer: Whitterings, December 2009


I recently had an e-mail correspondence about prayer with Gordon Livingston, the famous American psychiatrist and author of the bestselling books Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart and Never Stop Dancing. We were discussing the pastoral damage which is caused by unreflective ways of talking about the effects of prayer.

There are several types of prayer: worship or praise, repentance, contemplation, thanksgiving and intercession. We were only discussing intercessory or petitionary prayer. Intercessory prayer is the natural response that comes from our loving people. Love is primarily seen in this world by the act of paying attention to one another. The love of God was shown to us because he came to live among us, to spend time with us. We pray for people because we are paying attention to them and spend time on them. This type of prayer expands our minds and our hearts beyond our normal selfish focus and reminds us that all human beings are our brothers and sisters. We pray especially for those who are sick or in need (we are also supposed to pray for our enemies although I seldom hear this in church). We want what is best for them so as an act of love we hold them up to God and pray that His will be done. I have spoken at length in previous columns about the idea that prayer without action is only half a prayer and lacks the incarnational aspect of Christianity. The effect of the individual and the community paying attention to those in need can be mighty and powerful. It can change the world. It is only when we pay attention to something or someone that we are able to then act as agents of Christ in the world.

Unfortunately we often speak recklessly of the effects of such prayers. When people recover from extreme illnesses or have miraculous healings (the effects of prayer on the body’s immune system have been well documented by science) we often claim they have been healed because we have prayed for them or because God has taken a particular action because of our prayer. This is true in the way I have already described, but this is seldom what people mean.

I recently receive an e-mail from a protestant minister in British Columbia whom I know whose son had been in a terrible car accident. He wrote to his congregation and friends that he was thankful that God had heard his prayers and saved his son. He claimed that his son’s survival was a sign that God loved him, had a plan for him and would always protect him. He said that God had intervened and slowed the impact of the car and kept him alive at the hospital. Although I felt for this minister in his time of fear and stress I was also horrified by the theology he used when communicating with his people. Over 44 thousand people are killed in automobile accidents in North America every year. My first thought was what will this minister say when the child of one of his parishioners in killed in a car accident? He has already said publicly that God intervened in the case of his own son and slowed the impact of the car. He already said that God responded to his prayers and ensured his son did not die after the accident. He also said that this was because God loved his son and had a plan for him and would protect him. It follows that for the 44 thousand who did die God intentionally did not intervene, did not heed the prayers of the family and friends of the victims, did not love them, and did not have a plan for them and would not protect them . I certainly would not want to hear that funeral sermon! I also wonder what would happen to this man’s faith if his son had another accident and did die. Of course this minister would be horrified if someone though he believed all this. He just did not think out the implications of his original statement.

To be blunt about it, do you really think that God does not love or take pity on the innocent children who are victimised, abused and killed in this world? Is his heart not moved by the lonely cries of a frightened and dying child? Did he not hear the cries of those in the Death Camps of the third reich? Did they just not know how to pray properly? Is he really so arbitrary that he will intervene and save one person from cancer and leave the next door neighbour to suffer and die of the same disease? If any of these things were true about God then I would refuse to worship Him.

I do not think that most people who attribute divine intervention to petitionary prayer are aware of the ‘other side’ of their prayer. Again they just have not though through the implications. However some intercessory prayers are just obscene, especially when coupled with patriotism. Dr Livingston, in his book And Never Stop Dancing, spoke about his experience of the Chaplains in Vietnam.

“It was customary to close each evening’s briefings with a prayer. One night, our commanding office, Col. George S. Patton III, turned to the chaplain and asked him, ‘What shall we pray for tonight, Chaplain? How about a big body count?’ The chaplain obliged as follows: ‘Help us, O Lord, to fulfil the standing order of the regiment. Let us find the bastards, then pile on.’”

Mark Twain wrote a beautiful short piece about the ‘other side of prayer’ in his work The War Prayer. In it he describes the patriotic gathering of a new battalion and the town from which they were raised in the village church to be blessed before going off to war. The preacher offers up a passionate prayer for the victory of the troops and the whole congregation gets carried away in his patriotic fervour and eloquence. Then a stranger in a white robe silently enters the church and moves to the pulpit where he gently nudges the preacher aside. He then speaks:

From ‘The War Prayer’, by Mark Twain

"I come from the Throne - bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import - that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of - except he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two - one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this - keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer - the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it - that part which the pastor - and also you in your hearts - fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory-must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle - be Thou near them! With them - in spirit - we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it - for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen. (After a pause) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!"

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Twain apparently dictated this around 1904-05; it was rejected by his publisher, and was found after his death among his unpublished manuscripts. It was first published in 1923 in Albert Bigelow Paine's anthology, Europe and Elsewhere. The story is in response to a particular war, namely the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, which Twain opposed.

A moving but graphic animation of this story may be found on YouTube.



The Man of Sorrows, William Dyce, 1860, National Galleries of Scotland