Jimmy Carter photo

Remarks at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast

February 07, 1980

During these trying times, when I meet individual Americans or even visitors from a foreign land, I quite often have expressions of sympathy and condolence and encouragement because of the responsibilities that fall on a President. But perhaps the most urgently needed expression of condolence is for a President who has to follow, at the National Prayer Breakfast, people like Guy and Mark Hatfield and Max Cleland and Jim Wright. [Laughter]

And as you well know, I need your prayers this morning for many reasons. I was pleased with the program. As Mark pointed out it's nondenominational and nonpartisan, well balanced—I notice that almost half of those on the program did not come from Georgia. [Laughter] And I want to thank Mark for arranging a program so well balanced as that.

This morning I want to talk for a few minutes about growth—growth in our lives as we develop and growth in our spiritual lives as we develop. All of us start out with a sole preoccupation, as an infant and then as a developing human being, with one person, ourselves; later our mothers; then our families; and as we grow, our school classmates and the community and perhaps the district or State or Nation. And as we go through these phases of our life's evolution we become more and more aware of others.

It's a difficult transformation, each time, because as we think more and more about others, the relative preoccupation with ourselves becomes less and less if we grow. It's difficult to stretch our minds and our hearts and not become atrophied or pleased with our present position in life, pride, self-contained pleasure. The recognition of achievement as measured in human terms of riches or wealth are constant temptations for us all. It's not easy to overcome those temptations in our public lives, as Members of Congress or as members of a Cabinet or great distinguished judges or even a President, because the higher position we occupy in a human measured life, the more the temptations of self-satisfaction and pride press on us.

I tried to think of an illustration from my own family to prove a point. I remember my mother's letter to us one time from India. When she was 68 years old she joined the Peace Corps and went to India. She's a registered nurse, and she went there with a heart full of commitment and as a very benevolent person in her own character, but still it was a shock to her to observe the living conditions around the little community where she served. She worked in a doctor's office, and one day she had her first experience with leprosy. A father came in carrying a little girl about 8 years old, I think, in his arms, and the doctor told Mother, his aide, to give the little girl an injection and to begin medical treatments.

Mother was filled with a sense of horror and alienation and repulsion, because she, like all of us, had learned from our earlier stages in life about the terrible consequences of contact with leprosy. She finally forced herself to give that child an injection. And then a few minutes later went to the doctor and claimed to be ill, then went home and spent literally several hours washing herself.

As time went on, she continued the treatment and began to see that person not as a horrible example of a physical illness, but as a human being. And the girl began to get better. After a few weeks she was partially cured. It takes a long time. And one day the little girl came in, looked at Mother as a friend. Mother stretched out her arms. The little girl leaped to Mother's arms, and Mother kissed her on the mouth. And it was a good while later that she even realized what she had done. Her heart had been stretched and her mind had been stretched, because she forgot about herself. She learned in the process, and even at the age of almost 70, she was still growing, .and she still is.

It's hard to overcome those separations of phases of life and those separations that separate us one from another. A human being alone finds this to be almost an insurmountable obstacle. There are no laws written by a Congress or signed by a President that can deal with an event in a life similar to the one I've just described, and there are literally millions of those events that impress upon all of us the necessity for change. But God's laws, the basis of our own human laws, have no difficulty at all in describing a path for human or spiritual growth.

To learn about another who's different or considered inferior is a difficult thing indeed. It's always easier to isolate ourselves to enjoy the blessings that God has given us, everyone in this room, without bound, and to forget about the need to reach out to others. When we are confronted with a requirement to change there's always an inclination not to do so. And when there is a division between us, sometimes we even use that division to build up in ourselves a hatred or an animosity against the person who's different as a justification or a rationalization of our own selfish, exclusive attitude toward others.

We went through a phase in this country, particularly in the South, of separation between blacks and whites in a nation, under God, committed to equality of opportunity. And it was not easy for me or for others, black or white, to make that change. It was so much easier, at that time, to stay aloof from one another. But the pressures of change were finally accommodated, and now we all thank God that that difficult transformation was made. But we can't look upon that as a single, isolated, unique experience in a national or human growth process. Those challenges still press themselves upon us.

Without God, they're almost impossible. With God, the difficulties fade away. With God, we could realize the universality of a desire for peace. People want peace, pray for peace, hunger for peace, not just the absence of war but peace of mind, reassurance, a time for self-contemplation, a time for self-analysis, a time for growth. Peace doesn't automatically come with religion. As Guy pointed out a few minutes ago, the root of many of the world's most horrible conflicts or wars or death or destruction or hatred come from the misapplication of religious beliefs and teachings—the selfish, autocratic claim: "I am right, others are wrong."

We also learned about the universality of God's truth. Who knows what truth is? Someone living in a rain forest would say it is truth that the Earth is wet. Someone living in a desert would say it is the truth that the Earth is dry. Someone living on the Equator would say it's the truth that the Earth is hot. Those who live in the Arctic would say it is true that the Earth is cold. And each one would be so convinced with all that tangible evidence available to them, that they were telling the truth. Sometimes we close out conflicting views that might give us better understanding of the truth because we want to know what's best for us.

And of course, the universality of God's love. Not love for ourselves, not love for our mothers, our families, our communities, our districts, our State, not even love for our own Nation is adequate. There must be a love based on a genuine concern for others. One of the most difficult things for us to do is to pray for those who hate us, who despitefully use us, who persecute us.

The Bible says even the worst sinners love and pray for their friends, the ones who love them. And sometimes we don't go that one more step forward in growth, not on a single cataclysmic, transforming experience, but daily, and count those against whom we are alienated. At least every day, list them by name, and say, "God, I pray for that person or those people." Every day, I pray for the Ayatollah Khomeini. Every day I pray for the kidnapers who hold our innocent Americans. And every day, of course, I pray for those who are held hostages as innocents. It's not easy to do this, and I have to force myself sometimes to include someone on my list, because I don't want to acknowledge that that person might be worthy of my love. And the most difficult thing of all, I think, is to go one step even further than that and thank God for our own difficulties, our own disappointments, our own failures, our own challenges, our own tests.

But this is what I would like to leave with you. To set a time in each day to list all of the things that you consider to be most difficult, most embarrassing, the worst challenge to your own happiness, and not only ask God to alleviate it but preferably thank God for it. It might sound strange, but I guarantee you it works.

And you might say, "Why in the world should I ask God for thanks—give thanks, for something that seems to me so bad or so damaging?" Well, growth in a person's life, growth for a nation, growth spiritually, all depend on our relationship with God. And the basis for that growth is an understanding of God's purpose, and a sharing of difficult responsibilities with God through prayer.

Note: The President spoke at 8:59 a.m. in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel. In his opening remarks, he referred to Representative Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, Max Cleland, Administrator of Veterans Affairs, and Representative Jim Wright of Texas.

The breakfast is sponsored by the United States Senate and House prayer breakfast groups.

Jimmy Carter, Remarks at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/249904

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