Learning to be Helpless
“God, I can’t do this!”
Uttered silently in my mind, or sometimes muttered aloud through clenched teeth, this has become one of my most common prayers in the past eight months. Usually it feels more like a complaint than a prayer, but most of the time it is quickly followed by a plea for help and a request for grace and strength.
No, it usually doesn’t come before preaching a sermon or teaching a class or counseling a friend, or the majority of my pastoral duties (though probably it should). Instead, it comes as I clean up another mess or gear myself up for the daily toothbrushing adventure or say for the billionth time “Drink your milk all gone!” or get pulled (literally) in to another game of catch.
Parenting a special-needs child is teaching me to be helpless. It’s teaching me to pray.
Paul Miller is the author of a wonderful book called A Praying Life. He is also the father of a severely autistic girl named Kim. I read his book a couple years ago and it was very influential in my thinking and practice of prayer. I’ve been re-reading portions of it in the months since our return home from China with our Down Syndrome daughter, and it is hitting home in a far deeper way now than before.
In his chapter entitled “Learning To Be Helpless,” Miller writes:
…it dawned on me recently that I had never prayed for [Kim] or with her that she would stop pacing. Why? Because I already knew the solution: “Kim needs to stop pacing. I will tell her to stop pacing.” In other words, I didn’t feel helpless. I knew what to do. I call this the idiot approach to life. In other words, “You idiot, if you would just stop…”
Little children are good at helplessness. It’s what they do best. But as adults, we soon forget how important helplessness is. I, for one, am allergic to helplessness. I don’t like it. I want a plan, an idea, or maybe a friend to listen to my problem. This is how I instinctively approach everything because I am confident in my own abilities.
The gospel, God’s free gift of grace in Jesus, only works when we realize we don’t have it all together. The same is true for prayer. The very thing we are allergic to—our helplessness—is what makes prayer work. It works because we are helpless. We can’t do life on our own.
I am fairly confident in my parenting abilities. After all, I have three other children whom I have instructed and disciplined and nurtured through all the various stages of childhood. So I can do parenting OK. I don’t need to pray because I know how to make things happen.
Enter: Anah Joy Christian (whose name “Anah” incidentally means “God has answered”). Exit: all my parenting “wisdom” and “expertise”. How do you teach an 8-year-old with Down Syndrome to quickly drink her milk because everyone else has been finished with the meal 30 minutes ago? She doesn’t understand our English words. She probably doesn’t like the taste of milk (but she can’t tell us that). You can force milk into her mouth but it is impossible to force anyone to swallow. She doesn’t comprehend the concept of rewards and isn’t motivated by treats. Raising your voice and scolding and lecturing and threatening just gets a blank look in response. Cajoling and encouraging produces smiles but little action. Pray? But I don’t need to pray—I know what needs to happen. Anah needs to drink her milk!
Back to the clenched teeth complaint: “God, I can’t do this! I don’t know how to teach this girl. I am not able to love her like You do. I am so impatient. I am so unkind. Forgive me (again!) <sigh> Please help me.”
Anah is teaching me to be helpless. Anah is teaching me to pray. Thank You God for my precious daughter. Thank You God for Your persistent grace that daily confronts my sin and reminds me how much I need You.