Bargaining with God in prayer is such a common human behavior that it’s part of our culture. How many times have you seen a character in a movie, hands clasped, drenched in tears, promising, “God, if you will just [fill in the blank], I promise you I’ll never [fill in the blank] again!” Scenes like this appear in novels too, and many of us have caught ourselves doing something like this in real life. “I know I haven’t been to church recently, but if you help me with this, God, I promise I’ll go to church every week.”
Sometimes bargaining happens because we’re trying to get out of the consequences of a bad choice. We are, in essence, asking God to overlook our mistake just this once, get us out of it, and accept as His “reward” our promise that we won’t make this mistake again. This attempt at escape makes several interesting assumptions – not the least of which is that God, staring at us in the midst of our self-made disaster, believes us when we say we won’t do it again.
But perhaps more often, bargaining happens when we are struggling on the brink of despair. We are grasping at what we perceive as our only hope – Divine intervention and protection. This is a good impulse in many ways. God is always our hope and our protector. But desperation can be short-sighted.
As Orthodox Christians, we turn to the saints and fathers of our faith to help us when we can’t solve what confronts us. Their long, long sight into the life of the human spirit can help us resist despair and relax in hope.
For example, read what then-Elder Porphyrios said about bargain prayers and God’s “secrets.”
We shouldn’t blackmail God with our prayers. We shouldn’t ask God to release us from something, from an illness, for example, or to solve our problems, but we should ask for strength and support from Him to bear what we have to bear. Just as He knocks discretely at the door of our soul, so we should ask discretely for what we desire and if the Lord does not respond, we should cease to ask. When God does not give us something that we ask for insistently, then He has His reasons. God, too, has His ‘secrets.’ Since we believe in His good providence, since we believe that He knows everything about our lives and that He always desires what is good, why should we not trust Him? Let us pray naturally and gently, without forcing ourself and without passion. We know that past present and future are all known, ‘open and laid bare’ before God. As Saint Paul says, ‘Before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to His eyes.’ We should not insist; such persistence does harm instead of good. We shouldn’t continue relentlessly in order to acquire what we want; rather we should leave all things to the will of God. Because the more we pursue something, the more it runs away from us. So what is required is patience, faith and composure. And if we forget it, the Lord never forgets; and if it is for our good, He will give us what we require when we require it.
God has His secrets, His reasons, the tender wisdom of love that sees all, knows all, and gives all, according to the season, for all our needs.
-Photo from a recording of St. Porphyrios praying the Jesus Prayer