I stopped praying everything would be okay. Here’s what happened.

I almost always pray on my way to work.

One of my jobs is working at a domestic violence shelter, and it’s usually at night when I’m the only employee there. After the full-time day staff leaves, there is a part-time employee who spends the evening hours at the shelter making sure every resident is safe and accounted for by midnight when the shift ends.

There are a lot of pros to being able to work autonomously like this at my job, but it does come with some cons. One of which is having to handle stressful situations alone.

And at a domestic violence shelter, there is never a shortage of stressful situations.

Every car that drives onto the property puts me on alert. I watch for anyone who could threaten the safety of the residents and myself—especially being watchful for abusive partners looking for one of our residents.

Residents bend rules, get into arguments, and don’t always respect shared space. Someone uses another person’s laundry time slot and messes up the whole washing schedule for the day. Others let their kids run up and down the halls. Some accuse others of stealing from their apartment. And often someone isn’t home by curfew which sends the evening staff person into a panic to locate them.

All these things are reasons why I often find myself talking to Jesus before my night shift begins.

“Jesus, please bring everyone back safe tonight.”

“Jesus, please don’t let anything crazy happen during my shift.”

“Jesus, I am not in the mood today for stressful stuff. Please let nothing bad happen.”

These are the kinds of things I pray. And it never occurred to me, until today, why my habit while driving to work is to pray these things.

I pray them because they give me a sense of control over the uncontrollable.

In my Christian small group, we’ve been discussing prayer—what it is, and what its purpose is. And we realized our prayers almost always consist of asking God to change (or prevent) challenging situations we’re facing.

But…this isn’t why God invented prayer. Truthfully, God isn’t really concerned about changing our circumstances and giving us easier ones. (Think of Joseph unjustly sold by his brothers into slavery, and David perpetually on the run from Saul in the Old Testament—or Jesus who pleaded with God for another option the night before His crucifixion.) No, God’s far more interested in shaping our character, and the best places for character development are often smack dab in the middle of situations that are hard.

In situations that are beyond our control.

So tonight as I got in my car and began to drive to work, I started to pray over my shift at work. As I was about to ask Jesus the same requests for a peaceful, incident-free night, I stopped myself. And in light of what I learned in my small group about God’s purpose for prayer, I prayed something else instead.

“Jesus…give me the grace I need to handle whatever may come my way at work tonight.”

Even though part of me felt scared to leave my request at that—no asking for safety or a calm shift—another part of me felt peace. I felt a kind of alignment with what we’d talked about at group, an alignment with God’s real purpose to pray: to join God in the work He’s already doing. To give up control and give Him trust.

I’ll be honest; tonight the uncontrollable happened at work. A kid broke loose from his apartment and started loudly roller skating down the hall. A resident pushed staff boundaries in a way that required a creative, tactful, and patient response. A couple other residents tried to sneak in a cat they found when they thought I wasn’t looking. And lastly, another resident burned her dinner to a crisp, setting off her apartment smoke detectors…which shortly thereafter set off the entire building’s earsplitting fire alarm system.

So in the midst of dashing into a smoke-filled apartment, running around silencing alarms and resetting sensors, I remembered what I’d prayed on my drive to work earlier. I didn’t wish I’d prayed my typical prayers and somehow avoided this crazy night; I actually felt thankful. Thankful that I was brave enough to let go of my desire for control and open myself to a willingness to be shaped by whatever would come.

I didn’t pray that everything would be okay. And it certainly wasn’t! But I felt the muscle of my character grow a little bit stronger because of it.

And that, I think, is what prayer is really all about.

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