When Prayer Doesn’t Work

The Oprah Show

Years ago when I lived in Manhattan, my friend Mike and I watched an Oprah show about bullying. The show featured a young girl in Junior high. She didn’t have the greatest Hollywood-enhanced figure. She had coke-bottle glasses and her clothes were something out of Revenge of the Nerds.   This girl told her heartbreaking story about ridicule and shame.   Oprah asked for feedback from the audience.  Many people stood up and said, “Girl, you need to be yourself…” “You need to stand in your power…” “You need to ask God to help you…”

Good advice, right?

The bullied girl didn’t think so.   After each sound-byte of self-help, she took her stubby finger, pushed her grimy coke bottle glasses up on her nose and whined in a voice like a dentist’s drill, “Yeah, I tried that and it didn’t work.”

The audience was flummoxed but Mike and I found her compelling. She was a bad accident and we couldn’t look away. She was a “don’t-let-this-happen-to-you,” that could very well happen to us.   See, Mike and I were working on ourselves, working to become better.   We both had big dreams and we were praying for astounding results.

Throughout our years in New York, we would occasionally look at each other and say, “What if we wind up like the Oprah girl?   What if after years of trying, we say: ‘Yeah, I tried that prayer stuff – and it didn’t work…’”

Maybe you can relate. Perhaps you’ve been stuck in the same problem for years. Maybe you’re praying for changes and doing everything “right” but your life still seems “wrong.”  Is it possible that your prayers don’t work?   

When Your Prayer Doesn’t Work

In the Oprah story many of us identify with the bullied girl. We have compassion for her as she awakens within us memories of feeling victimized by life and other strangers.   We also identify with the advice-givers – all the well-meaning inner and outer voices that beg and/or inspire us to “fix” ourselves.

What about those bullies?

Ruth Buzzi as "Gladys."

Ruth Buzzi as “Gladys.”

It’s hard for us to see ourselves as bullies because we’re all good people.   We may not be taunting or coercing others, but I’m willing to bet we bully the universe from time to time.   We mock reality as it is and attempt to force it to match what we think it should be. On a really bad day, we act like Ruth Buzzi in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In – sitting on a park bench, wearing a low-slung hairnet, determined to beat the Universe with a purse or a prayer.


Ruth Buzzi in Action

My inner Ruth Buzzi entered slap-mode recently because our beautiful church, after years of relative stability, has decided to get all frisky on me. In the last couple of months, at least three enormously helpful leaders who play significant roles in our Center have chosen to leave.

Each departing leader still loves us. They applied the wonderful spiritual principles we teach and now their lives are changing for good. Each one is pursuing a new, custom-made opportunity. I am truly happy for each of them.   I understand that change is a good thing as it makes way for newness.   At the same time, as I contemplate the Gaping Holes where devout leaders used to be, I feel inspired to slap God up-side the head with my purse of prayers. I want this fixed, now.

I prayed so hard the other day I about gave myself a hernia. It was a pretty good prayer, if I do say so myself. I half expected a new Volunteer Coordinator, Choir Director and Building Ministry Leader to show up on my doorstep like a basket of puppies. That didn’t happen; but I did remember something I tend to forget:

Prayer often works by not working. Unanswered prayer is always an invitation to go deeper.

I talked to God about it.  “Dude,” I said.   “I get it, you’re stretching me.  So what am I missing in regards to this freakish exodus of amazing volunteers?”

The Pema Principle

I was guided to remember what I call “The Pema Principle.”

Pema Chodron advises us to befriend the feelings we try and avoid, the feelings we think we shouldn’t have.   It seems counter-intuitive.   It seems like we should cover-up our pain and sadness, but this is just another form of bullying.   If we are willing to kindly observe our dis-comfort, we find comfort and healing.

With this remembrance, I saw my purse-slapping prayer as an elaborate strategy.   I was applying a Band-Aid to a hemorrhage of feelings I did not want to feel, feelings that made no sense, feelings so bad I knew they had to be good: loss, abandonment, rejection and failure.

What’s good about loss, abandonment, rejection and failure?   I spent an hour or so finding out. Knowing that my current situation was a mirror of my past relationship with loss, abandonment, rejection and failure I deliberately summoned memories of these qualities.   I sat on my bed under a pile of red dogs and reminisced about the skank-musician-boys who dumped me back when I was dating. I remembered the auditions I didn’t get and the dud sermons I’ve preached. I thought of our volunteers moving on and how I was both happy for them and sad for me….

Surprisingly, this foray into inner darkness did not kill me. In fact, it created peace. My inner bully and my inner Oprah girl sat down and braided each others’ hair.   The voices of my “inner audience” became wiser. They reminded me that yes, we need to stand in our truth and be who we are – but we do so without crucifying the forsaken parts of ourselves.  Radical self-compassion neutralizes toxicity.   Witnessing our fear makes us brave; and perhaps an unanswered prayer is the perfect opportunity to be loved in the fullness of all that we are and all that we are not.

The End

There is no end to the mystery of church, prayer, darkness, light, relationships, love and loss. My problem isn’t “fixed” yet, but I trust that new beginnings will emerge soon.   Right now, I appreciate everyone who has served our church so faithfully.   I send off our leaving leaders with abundant blessings as I am grateful to learn through the process of letting go.

Most of all, I am satisfied with what I’ve learned about unanswered prayer.   Sure, I’ll take a basket of puppies on my doorstep any day. But sometimes the best prayers are the prayers that lead us to a deeper relationship with Reality showing up in strange, sweet, unpopular disguises.   Sometimes the best prayers are the prayers that work by not working — and if prayer can work by not working, then prayer always works.


Questions to Ponder:

  1. Is there an “unanswered prayer” in your life?
  2. How do you feel bullied or victimized by life ?  How do you attempt to bully life into submission?
  3. Are you trying to avoid feeling something? If so, are you willing to apply the “Pema Principle?” Can you feel the things you fear and experience greater compassion?

14 thoughts on “When Prayer Doesn’t Work

  1. Bernie Austin

    My inner critic can be such a bully. I pour love & acceptance, like syrup on pancakes, to sweeten my relationship with myself. I feel grateful my reality is not a sticky as the metaphor.

    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Ha ha Bernie – I see you immersed in metaphorical sweet syrup – and so it is!

  2. Julie Cohen

    This is a great piece of writing, Bonnie. Message received and so inspiring! My personal favorite was when your inner Oprah girl and your inner bully braided each other’s hair!

    Thank you for the very timely reminder!! Love, Julie

  3. Joann Landon

    Well this is very timely! It is also the first time I checked out your blog. I recently injured my knee and it isn’t allowing me to walk very well, then this morning my back decided to contribute to my sense of decrepitness. One injury at a time please? So yes, I have some emotions I can get in touch with and you have given me permission. And courage. We’ll just see about these prayers that work by not working!

    Hello all you Venturans! Miss you!

    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Thanks Joann! So glad you checked in. I support you 100% in the deeper journey and trust that inner and outer healing are working in perfect timing. Love, Bonnie

  4. Susan Hamilton

    You are brilliant, and I love your blog — your humour, your insights, and your willingness to share your vulnerability. Such courage ……. Thank you.
    PS I also have a red dog, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Charlie.

    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Thank you Susan, for your kind words. Many blessings to you and your Red Dog Charlie. What ever would we do without them? Warmly, Bonnie


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