Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
— Prayer of the Day, Lectionary 15, Year A
Someone sometime in the past told me about “help me/us to” prayers. I don’t remember who it was (and if you’re reading this, I’m sorry), but they had a problem with prayers that asked God to help me/us to accomplish something. I thought about that as my pericope study group met over Zoom this morning to discuss this Sunday’s lections.
Petitionary prayer, of which the above is an example, is prayer that requests a particular action or result from God. This is probably the most common prayer among Christians–we pray to God because we want something. It can be for us, it can be for others, but it is ultimately an acknowledgement that what we ask is something we cannot make happen under our own power.
Such prayer is a dramatic statement of God’s power to act. The Pastoral Care book of Evangelical Lutheran Worship is a treasury of prayers that call God to action: “keep all evil away from their door”, “deliver us from anger’s power over us”, “overcome bitterness with your joy, hatred with your love, brokenness with your life”, “come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed”, “give us grateful hearts, O God, for all your mercies, and make us mindful of the needs of others”, “rekindle our faith and light the lamp of hope within our hearts”.
Prayers like these acknowledge God’s capacity, despite our human flaws and failures, to achieve such mighty goals as preventing evil from entering a house, or banishing anger from the human heart, or overcoming the human tendency toward violence and hatred, or to force us to consider the poor and needy instead of ignoring them, or even and especially to strike the fire of new faith in one who has never had it, or relight the ashes of a faith long since burned out.
“Help me/us to” prayers, on the other hand, do not. These prayers center the action not on God, but on me. They assume I’m perfectly capable of overcoming depression on my own with just a little help from God. They assume I can choose to place more trust in my God. They assume I can bring peace and justice to a world despite the world’s unflinching opposition.
They assume wrongly.
And even if that assumption is true–even if I’m capable of accomplishing all of this–asking for God to “help me/us to” do something also absolves us when we choose not to. Because we aren’t actually asking for God to change anything, merely to help us change something, we retain control over the outcome, to shape it to our own desires, while keeping us out of the line of fire. “Help me work for justice in my community” keeps me safe and in control. “Bring justice to my community” very much risks catching me up on the wrong side of that activity. Asking God to “help me/us to” is an attempt to shield us from God’s creative and transforming work.
I don’t need God’s help. I need God’s action. I need God to know that I can’t do any of this by myself, even when I want to (and especially when I don’t). If I could do it on my own with just some help from God, then conquering my sins and self-doubt would be an attainable goal without God’s help, too. More difficult, but attainable with just a little more effort. And that’s assuming I want to in the first place.
I don’t need God to adopt a semi-Pelagian approach that depends on me making a significant contribution before God takes action. I don’t need God to lie to me and tell me I can do it, I just need to try harder. If I could, I wouldn’t need God. I don’t need God to wait for me to act because “wait has almost always meant never.”
I don’t need God’s help. I need God’s salvation. I need God’s forgiveness. I need God’s resurrection and restoration. I need God’s love. I need God’s rescue. I need God’s action. I need God the way the psalmists needed God when they begged, “Answer me when I call, O God,” and “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” and “Listen to me and answer me; I am restless in my complaint; I am distraught,” and “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.”
I can’t rescue myself from myself no matter how much help I receive. I need more. Creation needs more.
O Lord, hear my prayer and let my cry come before you.