Being Prayed For

The oral exam I took at the end of my master’s program was a nightmare. I couldn’t remember the answers to basic questions. I learned later that the only reason they passed me was because my writing was good, and my advisor persuaded them that it would serve no purpose to fail me. But it was a horrible experience.

When I took the oral defense part of my doctoral exams, then, I was pretty much terrified. And I remember how in the days before the exam, a number of people from a variety of religious traditions expressed their support by saying that they would be praying for me. I was touched by the genuine caring behind such statements. But at the same time, it kind of freaked me out.

There are situations in which telling someone that you’re praying for them can come across as quite obnoxious; an assertion that you’re praying for someone’s soul because it’s clearly in danger of eternal damnation, for example, isn’t always going to be received well. But this instance wasn’t like that at all. So what was up with my reaction? I think the problem was that the fact that others were praying for me actually made me feel more pressured—almost as if I had to do well in order to bolster their faith. If I failed, I worried, I’d not only let down myself, but also all these other people.

But I’ve also had other experiences. In recent years, I’ve been in and out of the hospital, and a lot of people have told me they were praying for me. And that hasn’t bothered me at all; on the contrary, I’ve really appreciated it. I haven’t felt pressured to get better more quickly, or anything like that. I don’t know if that’s because the situations aren’t really comparable, or if I’ve simply mellowed out about the subject.

Still, I find that I don’t usually tell people when I’m praying for them. Partly it has to do with the fact that prayer is just a very private thing for me, and not something I talk about much. Also, at times it feels like an awkward thing to mention, and I worry about the meta-message they might hear. But I’m not sure that never bringing it up is the best idea, either.

And back to my exam, it went surprisingly well, much better than I’d expected. Make of that what you will.


  1. This is really interesting, Lynnette. I’m definitely familiar with the “I’ll pray for your soul” type of comment, where it’s being used as a weapon. I saw this from both missionaries and people we interacted with when I was a missionary. It’s a great way to suggest that you’re more righteous and that you have a direct line to God that the person you’re talking to doesn’t. But I hadn’t thought about your major example, where being told people are praying for you puts more pressure on you to do well to justify their faith. It totally makes sense, though.

    Just thinking more generally, I wonder if it might be helpful to think of the decision to pray for someone and the decision to tell someone you’re praying for them as separate. It’s possible to tell someone you’re praying for them without actually doing it (as I’m sure was frequently the case with the missionaries and their arguing opponents I witnessed), but it’s also possible to pray for someone without telling them you’re doing so. This might help us make sure our motives are more pure, that we’re not getting something out of telling someone you’re praying for them. Of course this possibility might not have helped in your first experience, where people likely were trying to be more supportive by telling them. But I think it might be at least a useful way of framing the discussion, and maybe even of communicating to people that you’d love for them to pray for you, but hearing too much about it was stressing you out.

    I don’t know. Just some random ideas. I really like the post.

  2. Very interesting, Lynette! I’ve had some similar thoughts about fasting. As I’ve become less enamored with the idea that fasting is like turning in a big, shiny bonus chip to get God to do what we want, I’ve thought that telling someone I’m fasting for them is a way of saying that I really care about them, that they mean a lot to me. Of course, that only works in the appropriate context, such as when they have a sick child, and could be counterproductive for the reasons you and Ziff mention if we are fasting for their soul or fasting that they return to church.


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