After graduating with my PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision a few years ago, I found myself unable to secure a teaching position at the graduate level. During this same time, I was receiving therapeutic support from a social worker who believed that we are supported by a host of “guides and angels” who work to help fulfill our deepest desires.
While in therapy, I interviewed for an adjunct teaching position at my alma mater. As I described to my therapist the anxiety I was experiencing while awaiting their hiring decision, she encouraged me to ask my guides and angels for what I wanted. “However,” she caveated, “instead of asking for this specific job, try asking for this…or something better.” While I certainly liked the idea of getting my dream job or something better, there was a fundamental impediment to my understanding what had been said: I wasn’t actually able to conceive of anything better than what I thought I wanted in that moment. Predictably, when I did not get this “dream position” that I was petitioning God, the Universe and everything else to make manifest, this caused a crisis of spiritual confidence in both my guides and angels and my therapist!
Fortunately, as time and circumstances have advanced, an understanding of how petitioning a loving God can still result in “unanswered prayers” has emerged. One foundational pillar of Buddhist philosophy is that suffering is caused by clinging – and in this instance, a refusal to let go of the desire for a specific outcome. When faced with opportunity, it is human nature to immediately begin hoping and/or praying for our preferred result. However, the more we project into a narrow vision of what is “best,” the more suffering we will likely experience. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to know what is going to happen in the future in order to help keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and secure – however, this projection into the future and preoccupation with ascribing theological meaning often prevents us from dealing with the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are happening right now. We can see this in religious tropes offered in response to people enduring preventable systemic terror and injustice (“all things work together for the glory of God…”), dismissive and premature declarations of providence (“It wasn’t God’s will that I get that job…”), and the cruel superimposing of theological significance over tragedy (“her death was all part of God’s plan…”).
Unanswered Prayers and The Therapeutic Relationship
How does this all relate back to the therapeutic relationship and how do we help clients reframe their experience of unanswered prayers? I invite you to consider the following four steps:
- First and foremost, it is important that we as clinical mental health professionals not engage or encourage the superficial spiritual bypassing of human experience through the offering of empty religious tropes.
- Second, it is vital that we support the critical and life-giving interaction between our clients and the divine by supporting their right to ask for what they desire or something better from God, the Universe, and their guides and angels.
- Third, it is critical that we also provide a space to develop an appreciation and understanding that we cannot control the future, which means that oftentimes the circumstances that might ultimately lead to “something better” are largely beyond our comprehension.
- Finally, we aspire to journey with our clients in real time, directly engaging the ambiguity, pain, hope, and plodding messiness of change…which, in some cases, is precisely the “something better” we all desperately need.
As clinical mental health clinicians with spiritual sensitivity, the idea of petitionary prayer is often inexorably woven into the fabric of the therapeutic endeavor. After all, most clients seek therapy because they desire change, both internal (such as healing from past traumas, regulating difficult emotions or dissembling problematic personal narratives) and external (navigating life stage changes, learning healthy communication skills or gaining support while pursuing academic, career, and personal goals, for example). Regardless of the type of change the client is seeking, being able to accurately discern between what elements of a situation can be directly controlled – and those that cannot – is an important part of the therapeutic process. While it can be assumed that most counselors routinely work with clients on circumstances and behaviors which derive from an internal locus of control, how do we help our clients understand events and outcomes which lay beyond their ability to dictate?
God and “Non-Answers”
As a lifelong Christian and more recent student of Buddhist philosophy, I have long puzzled over how to reconcile the belief that God (or “the Universe” as Eastern spirituality might frame it) is a benevolent force that deeply cares about my happiness and works to help manifest my deepest desires with the fact that I sometimes do not get what I want when it matters most! Over the past decade, I have spent countless hours with clients as they wrestled with this very same issue, only to have many of these encounters end with a sigh, a shrug, and an empty religious platitude like “everything happens for a reason” or “ours is not to question why”. While it can be liberating to not have to provide answers or construct fences around the ineffable mystery of the Universe, these “non-answers” can frequently leave both client and counselor dissatisfied. However, perhaps there is more we can do as we walk our clients through those opportunities that cry out for God to respond in a very specific way.
- 4 Steps to Help Clients Reframe Unanswered Prayers - November 8, 2019