The Prayer of Indifference

I recently encountered the prayer of indifference through the writings of Ruth Haley Barton. For Barton, the prayer is an integral part of a discernment process, whether individual or communal. Here’s how she defines it:

“This is not the kind of indifference that we associate with apathy; rather, it is the prayer that we would be indifferent to everything but the will of God. Indifference in the discernment process means that I am indifferent to matters of ego, prestige, organizational politics, personal advantage, personal comfort or favor, or even my own pet project” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, (2008) p. 201-202.).

Barton’s key question to guide this prayer is this: What needs to die in me in order for the will of God to come forth in and among us?

My coworker and I encountered this prayer around the same time through different routes, and we were discussing how to initiate a discernment process for our leadership in regards to an important crossroads facing our church family. In our conversation, he came up with a couplet that I began using as a breath prayer that day: God, help me to see / what needs to die in me.

At first, even before we started a group discernment process, I focused this prayer on the issue we faced. However, it began to permeate every point in my life where I was holding on to preferred outcomes with a firm grip. I then noticed that the prayer kicked in whenever I felt bitterness or resentment in my heart for someone or some issue.

The power of this prayer to both disrupt and bring peace to my life amazed me. It became my go to prayer as I laid my head down to sleep. Breathing in God, help me to see, and breathing out what needs to die in me, empowered me to let go of restlessness and anxiety.

On a morning walk, I realized that the prayer was about releasing not just selfish things, but good things even. It was about letting everything go and believing that if something was essential for my future God would restore or preserve it. Here’s the story God put in my mind that morning to spark this aha moment: Abraham and the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). The New Testament writer of Hebrews perceived that somehow Abraham knew this: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead” (Hebrews 11:19).

The prayer of indifference invites us to lay down every conviction, even every good thing, for the sake of seeking God’s will—“nothing more, nothing less, nothing else”—a quote from another source Barton includes as she defines this prayer.

With this experience as a backdrop, my coworker and I were able to initiate the discernment process for our leadership team, and with it, the prayer of indifference. After describing the prayer by reading a passage from Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, I walked the group through this exercise:

Part 1 (five minutes per step)

  • Silence and breath prayer…repeating slowly the prayer of indifference: (breathe in) “God, help me see,” (breathe out) “what needs to die in me.”
  • Reflect on the sentiment of these questions: What do I not want to give up? What am I insisting on? Write responses on sticky notes—one response per sticky note.
  • Come together and take turns placing notes on a whiteboard (or other appropriate surface) and, without commentary, read each response. Sort, as needed, similar responses in to groups.

Part 2 (five minutes per step)

  • Silence and breath prayer…repeating slowly: (breathe in) “Speak, Lord,” (breathe out) “your servant is listening.”
  • Write down on sticky notes what it is that we hear, sense, or feel from God that replaces what we want.
  • Come together and take turns placing notes on a whiteboard (or other appropriate surface) and, without commentary, read each response. Sort, as needed, similar responses in to groups.
  • Prayer

Part 3: Choose a length of time to discuss what the group learned through this exercise. It is possible that some have let go of important convictions while others may not be ready to fully give up a preferred outcome. Be honest about where the group is and affirm each person in the struggle to come to a place of indifference. It is also probable that the second part of the exercise doesn’t reveal a particular decision. It is still important to discuss how the things with which God replaces our desires inform where the group now stands.

For our group, this exercise provided a needed corrective to a previous meeting in which we found ourselves speaking out of our preferences. Still in our discernment process, we have found a new posture with which we can listen to God as well as one another.

For me, the prayer of indifference continues to bring peace. Bitterness and resentment dissipate before taking root. Letting go and trusting God is taking a powerful hold on my heart.

For a full discernment process outline, see chapter twelve of Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton (2008).

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