Praying About Something that Can’t Be Changed

by Brenda Poinsett

One of my favorite books is Prayer Can Change Your Life by William R. Parker and Elaine St. Johns. When I recommended it in a speech, a man in the audience later asked, “Where can I get that book, Prayer Can Change Your Wife?” Thinking he was making a play on words, I started to laugh. When I saw he was serious, I realized many people would like a book that tells how to change others. Our prayers, though, really can’t change other people. Prayer will not change someone’s genetic makeup or that person’s past experiences—which may be causing the present behavior. Neither can prayer change the inevitability of aging and death. After the fact, prayer will not change the closing of the factory or the airplane accident; no amount of praying can rewind the tape of life to “pre-closing” or “before the crash.” Our prayers often seem ineffective against many of the most hurtful, frustrating, and discouraging circumstances of our lives.

Enriching your prayer life.
When we struggle with things that just can’t be changed, we feel as though we’re in the jaws of a vise. While it may be true that no amount of praying will get us out of the vise, prayer can help to relieve the pressure.

Pray for an escape.
It sounds incongruous to pray for an escape from something that is unchangeable, and yet it helps. When we cannot change some painful situation, our natural impulse is to fight against it rather than accept it. Continually fighting against something which cannot be changed creates pressure within us. This increases the difficulty of adjustment, prolongs acceptance, and makes the vise feel all the tighter. An escape request is a valve that releases some of the pressure. When my 15-year-old son chose to have surgery in which his jaw would be sliced and then repositioned with screws, I tried to talk him out of it. The recovery would require six weeks of having his mouth wired shut; his only nourishment would be whatever liquid we could force behind his teeth. When I couldn’t get Joel to change his mind, I tried to change God’s mind. I prayed, “Oh, God, if there is any other way possible, please have Joel change his mind.” Right up until two days before the surgery, I prayed for an escape. The escape didn’t come but God gave me the strength I needed to support Joel during his surgery and recovery. When we pray for an escape, God enables us to deal with what we think we cannot accept. With this inner pressure released, we are better able to cope with what can’t be changed.

Honestly express your emotions.
Unchangeable circumstances come laden with emotion. It’s important to express that emotion through honest prayer. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of honestly expressing emotions to God. One woman thought she would be struck with lightning if she expressed her anger to God. Fortunately, one day her real feelings surged to the surface and came out in an angry verbal torrent toward God. As she realized what she had done, she held her breath and waited for lightning to strike her. Instead, she experienced relief and comfort. A chaplain helped a crusty magazine reporter to express his emotions in prayer. Journalism instructors had taught him to be objective and suppress his emotions. When he was dying from a hepatitis virus, the chaplain told him, “Don’t be afraid to show your feelings. God gave us tears to wash away our pain.” I wish one of my friends had known that truth. When a flash flood hit our area, Dana’s house was completely covered with mud as the raging water swept through it. Many household items had to be thrown away. Cleaning the remaining items left Dana exhausted. Through it all, she did not shed one tear; she thought it was wrong to cry over material things. She didn’t express her feelings of loss to God or any of her friends. After the house was clean and back to normal, Dana became clinically depressed. Depression thrives on feelings that we do not express or acknowledge—feelings of anger, guilt, and grief. Honest praying opens the way for God to heal our hurtful feelings and help us handle what can’t be changed.

Expect God to answer you.
Honest prayer not only releases the emotions that go with un­changeable situations, it also gives God a channel to respond to us. The psalms are wonderful ex­amples of expressing gut-level emotions. On one occasion, Da­vid cried out, “How long shall I harbor sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day?” (13:3). On another occasion, Da­vid wanted to know why God had forsaken him (22:2). Aother time, David described his distress as being in deep water with no foothold. He said he had called until his throat was parched (69:2-4). Each one of those psalms, however, ends in praise. David was rejuvenated through praying. In his book The Meaning of Prayer, Harry Emerson Fosdick said that in response to our prayer God will either change the circumstances or supply sufficient power to overcome them. God answers ei­ther the petition or the person. When the circumstances can’t be changed, God answers the person. The answer God gives may be the inspiration for praise, as God gave to David. The answer may be calmness to relieve anxiety. It may be peace to ac­cept the situation. It may be patience to live or work with a person who is unwilling to change. It may be strength to persevere when adjusting gets tedious and difficult.

Ask for encouragement.
A one-time prayer probably will not dissolve the difficulty of ad­justing to a burden that cannot be changed. Many things that can’t be changed must be faced over the long haul. It took one paraplegic three years after her diving accident to come to grips with her par­alysis—to accept her fate and begin to see that life still had meaning. For three long years, she struggled with feelings of overwhelming despair and discouragement. In the long haul of wrestling over and over with what can’t be changed, we inevitably will expe­rience bouts of discouragement. Carrie’s teenage son died in a freak truck accident several years ago. Sometimes when she misses Jay, when she wonders again why he had to die so young, when the gloom of discouragement settles over her, Carrie asks for a “glimpse of glory.” A glimpse of glory is a brief mo­ment when God pulls back the curtain of despair and gives her a reason to go on living or shows her some hint of meaning behind Jay’s death. On those days when life is particularly difficult, we need to let God be our encouragement.

Lifting your heart to God.
As long as we live, we’ll have to adjust to things we cannot change. We’ll always be vulnerable to the clamp of that vise holding us in its grip. Sometimes the vise seems so tight that we think there’s nothing we can do—but there is. We can pray. We can ask God for escape and for encouragement; we can express our emotions and we can count on God to answer. When God answers, God will give us what it takes to live with what we cannot change.