When ‘I’m Praying for You’ Feels Like an Insult

By Wendy Thomas Russell | December 15, 2011 | 15 comments

On Monday, I wrote about how, in times of panic or grave concern, I will sometimes clasp my hands together, bow my head and express my deep hope for the safety of my loved ones. It’s prayer without religion. Like throwing a penny into a fountain or wishing on a star — but more deeply felt, more adamant, more serious.

I know there is no power in wishing. Some wishes come true; some do not. There may be disappointment in experiencing the latter – but not surprise. Still, wishing gives voice to our hopes and dreams, and sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it’s all we can do.

I think this is why I’m not offended when people tell me they’re praying for me. It touches me to think that, whether or not a higher power is ostensibly involved, those people are sharing their hearts with me in such an intimate way. I can only assume it makes them feel better, too.

But I know not everyone feels this way. To some non-theists, “I’m praying for you” reads like an insult — disrespectful, even offensive. They might feel frustrated that theists are hoisting religious beliefs on others, regardless of whether those beliefs brings comfort to the ailing party. One atheist mom said she can’t help but feel she’s being offered religious mumbo-jumbo in place of real help.

“When people tell me they’re going to pray for me,” she said, “I tell them I’m going to dance naked in a cornfield for them.”

That’s certainly one way to handle the situation.

But, because we’re raising kids who are looking to us as role models for how to handle stressful situations, I thought I might add some friendly advice. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Consider the source: Ask yourself if these people are trying to offend or irritate you. Are they good friends who know nothing of your non-faith? Are they family members simply trying to express their sympathies? Are we talking about people who couldn’t conceive of offering true support without prayer? Or are they using your time of sadness or fear to convert you? Are they putting you down at a time when they ought to be lifting you up? (Because if that’s the case, it’s time to do some de-friending.)

2. Own your own anger. Assuming people are offering you their prayers, times are probably tough right now. Part of the reason you might feel insulted is because you’re in pain. And, as we all know, pain likes a target. Anger is energizing, whereas sadness is energy-sapping. (Think cursing over coffee with a friend, as opposed to crying into a pillow). I’m not saying: “Don’t be angry.” Just be aware of what’s happening. Be aware that you might be scapegoating someone to ease your own discomfort, and let that knowledge tame your temper.

3. Save Yourself: It’s one thing to be offended by outspoken, obnoxious prayer talk. It’s another to put yourself in a position to be offended. And, these days, that position is called Facebook. Want to avoid 75 percent of religion-related annoyances in your life? Locate the Hide button, and click it.

4. Get some perspective. In the grand scheme of things, prayer is pretty darn harmless. In fact, because it’s mostly done in private, it may not noticeable at all. People who pray are unlikely to be hurting anyone — including you. So let them have at it! Then save your energy for the stuff that really matters.

5. Offer your thanks. Saying “thank you” when someone says they’re praying for you is a nice thing to say. And if someone is truly trying to be nice to you, the decent thing to do is to be nice back. Now, if someone is offering you their prayers as a way to demean you, there’s no reason to be nice. But I still think “thank you” is the best reaction. “Thank you” cuts off the conversation immediately; robs the person of any satisfaction they might get from riling you; and, when delivered with just the right amount of condescension, packs a hell of a punch.

6. Praise science. I think some of what is so bothersome about prayer is that it assumes prayer is required to fix bad situations — as though nothing but God has the ability to do that. To hear someone praise Jesus instead of praising the surgeon who just spent 12 hours saving your father’s life seems to give credit to the wrong party. And we humans like to see people rewarded for their good work. Although I would’t recommend getting into a confrontation about which one is more likely to made your dad well — prayer or medicine — I know others have found that voicing their faith in science or giving thanks to those who are making a difference in the world can offer a balance.

Now it’s your turn. Thoughts? Suggestions? Is there ever a time when “thank you” is the flat-out wrong thing to say?


15 comments

  1. anon says:

    I’m an Atheist and don’t have a problem with it, when used in the correct context. Example: If I said someone I’m close to was in the hospital and they tell me they’ll pray for me, I will smile and thank them, regardless of my lack of religion. However, if they find out that I am an Atheist and then tell me that they’ll pray for me in the condescending tone, I will most likely tell them to suck it.

  2. Kev says:

    I was so ignorant :)

    Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself revive this old post, but I really didn’t know this was such a huge deal to people of no faith, as you put it.

    I’m not here to stir up anything, I just wanted to thank you for writing stuff publicly.

    Although awkward/painful to read, thinking that some of my friends feel somewhat uneasy around me, knowing that I’m a Christian.

    • Richard Wade says:

      Hi Kev.
      You seem like a very nice person. The fact that you have the awareness that other people might feel uneasy around you can make a huge difference. Just stay real with people, a human with a human.

  3. Andrew says:

    I had a coworker say they would pray for me when it came up in conversation that I had voted for Obama. Very hateful. Very condescending.

  4. alan says:

    Wow, I just found this in a search and I have to say you are borderline hate speech on this. Here’s a mirror for you:

    You pray? I hate you.
    You pray for me? You self-righteous, conceited, hypocritical bastard, I hate you!

    Yea, you just turned prayer, which most intend as an intercessory petition on the behalf of someone else out of love and concern into a repugnant by word.

    Congratulations!

    • Danny Ray says:

      Alan, your correct in that prayer can be a repugnant word. For some worldviews, it is a word associated with the ultimate expression of caring. For many, it’s an overused scape goat trite term used to avoid objective concrete involvement. A recent example is eldery man in his 90′s caring for his very demented wife at home. As his family doc and being aware of caregiver stress I presumed and remarked that I bet his presbyterian church was of great support. He said-”Oh yeah, she’s on the prayer list in the bulletin every week, but nobody has helped me—not even one casserole.” That’s repugnant!

    • Given your remarks, Alan, I suspect you didn’t really read this blog post at all, and that you probably won’t be stopping by to read this response either. But I appreciate your stopping by.

  5. Richard Wade says:

    I haven’t yet been in a position of vulnerability, such as being sick or in danger, or with a loved one vulnerable, when a person has said they’d pray for me. I hope I can contain myself when that inevitably happens. It’s probably coming from their good intentions and their own sense of helplessness, but praying is a way for someone to do nothing and still think they’re helping. I’ll keep your very good advice here in mind.

    The very few times that someone has said “I’ll pray for you” have usually been at the end of a face-to-face discussion about something like science versus religion, as on rare occasions happens after one of my dinosaur shows for kids. The person would go back and forth with me for a while, and I would be very polite and never smug, but I’d answer their challenges with ease. When they realized that they were outmatched, they would say “I’ll pray for you,” as if that was some kind of signal that the conversation was at an end. Basically, they were trying to to make a retreat look like a dismissal. I would not gloat, but usually say with a slight tone of surprise, “Oh? Okay.” Once, when the person was pretty tense and a little hostile, I responded with a mildly incredulous “Really??” implying that I didn’t believe they actually would pray for me.

    I never do stuff like that if they’re larger than me. :)

    • Yes! This post almost deserves a sidebar to tackle the type of prayers that are offered up in order to “save your soul” or to one-up you in a religious argument. Clearly, that’s a whole other ball of wax, and one I should probably be ready for… Frankly, I love your mildly incredulous “Really??” Not sure you can beat that. Thanks so much, Richard.

  6. Danny Ray says:

    What do you call it when a person talks to God? Prayer.

    What do you call it when God talks to a person? Schizophrenia.

    What do you call it when an atheist prays? Talking to themselves? A religious regression? Ironically irrational wishful thinking?

    What do you call it when an agnostic prays? Hedging their bets?

  7. Kathy says:

    A hilarious Non Sequitur comic on the related topic of “hostile” prayer, archived here:

    http://s303.photobucket.com/albums/nn126/llanfair/?action=view&current=prayer.jpg&mediafilter=images

  8. Leanna says:

    I’m in agreement with you on this one! I don’t think I’ve ever had a response other than “thank you” when someone told me they were praying for me. It really doesn’t offend me any more than someone saying, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

    And you’re so right about Facebook. ;)

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