While I ate dinner with a close friend of mine recently, I mentioned how I might not get into medical school. He laughed and said, "Dude, you're smart. You'll get in for sure." Then the nerd in me busted out statistics, the graphs, and all the other math to to justify my worries.
He looked at me, concerned with my obsession with failure. Then, he nodded and said, "You just got to pray, man. You see, I had a friend who had low scores and..."
You know the rest.
My eyes immediately glazed over and my brain went on vacation.
I knew anything I said to him would just get shut down with, "Ah, trust in God."
This “just pray” type of moral support is a bane to Christian communities.
It's frustrating to become vulnerable about my fear and struggles and, in return, get advice I could find on a cute coffee mug or in a Christian thank you card — cheap, and manufactured; well-meaning, but useless.
I know that's incredibly cynical towards such a kindhearted sentiment. But, let me clarify: I
despise the advice of prayer, not prayer itself.
Dishing out "just pray" kills the emotional momentum in connecting two people.
Let's say hypothetically that my friend had, instead of telling me to pray, sympathized with how scary the application process was. What if he shared his recent moment of fear when he was applying to financial analyst internships
Who would I connect more with?
The hypothetical friend acknowledges my struggles and offers up his own story to make me feel less alone. In other words, he's being a friend. Not a cheesy, after school Christian TV special.
Now, that may lead some to say: So you're saying to never give Christian advice to pray at all?
In John 8, Jesus was tested by the Pharisees who wanted to catch Jesus breaking Mosaic Law. They brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asked what they should do.
Jesus said, "If you're so perfect, throw the first stone.” Insert dramatic pause. Then all the Pharisees left without stoning the woman. “That's what I thought,” Jesus said. (Okay so maybe that’s not exactly what happened, but you get the point.)
Then Jesus tells the woman to leave her life of sin. This message is not exactly "Go pray," but in essence, the message can be taken as "Go to God," or “Go pray.”
Jesus told her to pray, so shouldn’t we do that as well? But we are actually missing a big chunk of the story.
Because before Jesus told the woman to go pray, he saved this woman's life.
The Pharisees had wanted to kill her because of her sin. But, Jesus dropped the mic and the Pharisees backed out. Jesus rescued her and THEN he told her to pray. That short story captures the beauty of the gospel.
First the law came, represented by the Pharisees. Second, Jesus' saved her. Lastly, she could go pray and live her new life.
In other words, the order is 1) sin, 2) love, and then 3) transformation.
Now, let's switch the order. Imagine if the Pharisees threatened her, and Jesus said to the woman, "Leave your life of sin." Can you imagine the look of horror on her face? She'd be thinking, "This is it. This is how I die. I’ve sinned, I can’t save myself, and it’s time to pay."
She might have repented and begged forgiveness from God and then received a temporary reprieve from Jesus and the Pharisees, hoping she wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. However, that would make this a merit-based salvation story. When the story has love taken out, it's not the Gospel anymore.
Revealing the Gospel
So, let's bring this back to my example. The friend who says to “just pray” is also going straight from step 1) to 3).
But, the hypothetical friend who shares his story with love and empathy and then says, "You know, that internship process was tough, but what I found helpful was to pray for one minute before starting on my apps. That centered me." The transmission of the gospel is so much more effective.
Then our advice-giving can hit that 1-2-3 Gospel-revealing structure.
First, it reveals the sin of not trusting in God through the process of applying to medical school.
Second, the act of love and compassion, shown by the hypothetical friend who says, "Hey, that's hard. I've felt that way too."
Third, the transformation, "Here's how God plays a part in all this."
In fact, all of the times that Jesus commands people to live a new life, they are always, always preceded by an act of love.
Even for us, the cross calls us to live a new life. But it comes after the sacrifice of Jesus’ body on the cross. Step 2 always precedes step 3.
Waiting for Gospel Timing
I often find myself dishing out fast food Christian advice, packaged with the plastic sentiment of "just pray," so that I can immediately come back to why I'M having a bad week or struggling with this and that.
But, my friends, we need to stay on that narrow road. Yes, preceding "just pray" with true love and compassion is hard. It's personal. It's exhausting. But, it's what we're called to do.
It saddens me to hear my friends struggle with finding community at their church. I
struggle with it too. And I sincerely believe that this jump-the-gun attitude towards "Use
Prayer. Call 1-800-LORD" is a contributing factor to this growing sense of disconnect in the
So remember that simple 1-2-3 when you have a conversation with your friend. That
disconnect and loneliness will dissipate when we're vulnerable and when we show love, just as Jesus modeled that love for us.
Paul Lim is a graduate of UCLA and currently attends Sovereign Grace in Los Angeles, CA.