What to ask God? How to say it?...

Guidelines for Pastoral Prayer

Seward Hiltner: Generally speaking, the following seem to be the general rules for for the relevance of prayer in pastoral work and counseling, once it is clear that prayer itself is appropriate.

1. Like all other prayer, it should be addressed to God and thoroughly consistent with that fact. It should not be, from the pastor's point of view, a way of getting out of tight situations, or a way of getting authority behind points he has failed with in the counseling or pastoral work situation.

2. It should recognize before God the essential spiritual need as recognized and understood by the parishioner himself. This is well illustrated in the prayer of Student A. It should not be so general as to avoid all reference to spiritual need on the false ground that prayer should be affirmative only. That is, it should make contact with the need of the parishioner and communicate to the parishioner in the presence of God that the need is understood by the "three." Hence the need is accepted as a fact, a point from which to start, not something to be denied or repressed or about which to feel guilty.

3. To the degree that stress and tension exist, for whatever reason, it should emphasize the free availability from God and his Holy Spirit of the resources of peace, strength, quietness, and fellowship. To do anything else is like pushing into the water a person who is afraid of drowning. After he has gained confidence and learned that the water can support him if he relaxes, one may encourage him to swim and not merely float. But it is brutal to push him in before that. During stress and tension the supportive aspects of the gospel take priority over the prodding aspects; in other situations this may well be reversed. The "Word of God" in Luther's sense is always relevant to the need and situation.

4. The parishioner himself should be helped to pray by clarifying in prayer, as explicitly as may be needed, the Christian attitude toward trouble and suffering. So widespread is the belief that God sends suffering to try us, in the sense of throwing the terrified non-swimmer into the water, that this must sometimes be explicitly disclaimed. If this idea is retained in time of stress, then prayer can be nothing but a magical attempt to placate a God at whom one is secretly angry.

5. The form and content of a prayer should be consistent with the troubled parishioner's tradition and experience in the Christian life. The form of prayer by a Southern Baptist and an Episcopalian may be different in the degree of personal or impersonal references or in the degree of formality without there being any necessity for basic difference in approach to God.

Perhaps better than any other contemporary pastor, Russell L. Dicks has developed through both his parish ministry and hospital chaplaincy experience the capacity to make prayer relevant to the spiritual needs found in conditions of stress and tension. Consider, for example, a prayer which he calls simply "Prayer for Health," designed as a general prayer for use with sick people:

O God, our Father,
In quietness and confidence we turn to Thee,
Thanking Thee for the joys of life and living;
Eternal Father, we pray for the return of health;
We rest in Thee: as a ship rests upon the sea.
As a house rests upon its strong foundation,
Knowing that Thou dost work to give us health of body, and courage of soul,
Through the doctor's knowledge, through the nurse's skill,
Through the minister's quietness and prayer,
Through the affection of loved ones,
Through food, and rest, and fresh air of hope;
We trust Thee, our Father, and we thank Thee for health-giving forces within us.
And in that trust we are strengthened, in that confidence we are made whole.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What Dicks writes about the relation of awareness of God to health and healing is relevant to all situations of trouble, sorrow, and distress. In the pamphlet God and Health he has been discussing the "wisdom of the body" and the "wisdom of the mind," the self-regulating capacities of the human organism which work so steadily, so magnificently, and with such remarkable ingenuity toward the maintenance and restoration of health.2 He has been careful to make clear that these have to be guided and helped by human intelligence in the form of doctors and nurses and others. But then he writes:

The problem of health and of regaining health ... is basically the problem of establishing and maintaining a proper relationship with God -that God who has created us in the very cells and structure of our body, even when our thoughts are far from him. His healing power is at work whether we are serene or full of apprehension, whether we have a sense of fellowship or are sunk in the depths of loneliness, whether we are living creatively or are drifting, whether we have love in our hearts or resentment and bitterness. God's will and his healing power work in us whether we know it or not, whether we pay attention to it or not, whether we cooperate with it or fight against it.

If we do know God's healing power, if we do pay attention to it, a measurable change occurs. Let a man be deeply anxious, or lonely, or despairing, or bitter in his illness. Then let him really experience in his inmost awareness the consciousness that, all the time he has been anxious or lonely or despairing or bitter, the healing power of God has been trying to break through and bring him health and new life. He relaxes, not just on the surface, but deep inside. A power greater than himself, greater than his physician, is fighting, has been fighting, and will go on fighting on his side. Something happens in his body as well as in his soul. The extra and unneeded secretions that his emotions have kicked up and that have held back the process of healing, begin to diminish. Exactly the same thing happens as when the surgeon cuts away offending tissue. The potential healing power was there all the time, but something got in the way and kept it from doing its work.

The consciousness of God's healing power is thus itself an agent or instrument of that healing power, hand in hand with medicine, psychiatry, and all the other arts of healing based on scientific observation.

from "Pastoral Counseling" by Seward Hiltner, 1949


Go to Literature Index Page

This URL is abcog.org/hiltner.htm