“Selfish” Prayers

  • Question 135, from Nick, USA

    I recently read Rabbi Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I understand his logic on free will and how prayer shouldn’t be about asking for things like God is Santa. He mentions that he prays for patience, wisdom, and understanding before he counsels his patients. My question is how can you distinguish from the two types of prayers? You are still asking for something whether it is pious or selfish.

    If Kushner is not “asking” but praying that he will be patient and understanding then doesn’t prayer become meditation? I understand that their is a difference between how and why you ask for something during prayer (i.e., selfish versus praying for God’s will). Perhaps I shouldn’t be looking for something absolute (asking is asking regardless of how or why you ask) because if we can’t ask then all we can do is thank and praise Him and He might get tired of that.

    Prayer, in Christian practice, takes many different forms, including specifically asking for things. It has become quite popular to characterise prayer as ‘conversation between the believer and God’, with an emphasis on ‘listening for God’s reply’. In some senses this is very similar to meditation, and it may be possible that the ‘benefits’ of prayer are actually more to do with taking ‘time out’ to think through problems, or to ‘pass on responsibility’ for problems to an external source.

    In his recent book Prayer: Does it Make any Difference?, popular theologian Philip Yancey actually discusses whether prayer is a form of therapy or not {op cit pp 280-1]. Whether the psychological benefits of prayer which some people experience should be attributed to general principles of meditation and reflection, or supernatural intervention, is a subjective decision.

    In Christian tradition there is definitely an expectation that God hears prayer and acts on it. This does raise an interesting question: does the believer’s prayer change the situation, given that God knows what’s going to happen anyway?

    Jesus’ teaching on prayer outlines this tension. According to Jesus, God already knows what people need (Matthew chapter 6, verse 8), and yet he encourages his disciples to pray anyway using the form of words which is now known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (Matthew chapter 6, verses 9-13). A short while later in Matthew’s gospel, the gospel writer records Jesus encouraging persistence in prayer and specifically instructing his disciples to ‘ask, seek, knock’(Matthew chapter 7, verses 7-11).

    The prayer model Jesus gives his followers includes a request for everyday things for personal use (‘daily bread’), personal requests for forgiveness, and delivery from temptation and evil. This is mixed with acknowledgment of God’s supremacy and power. As a model for Christian prayer it therefore strikes a balance between adoration and requests (sometimes referred to as ‘petition’).

    Philip Yancey notes there have been significant Christian figures who have concluded it would be improper to ‘bother God’ with small requests. But Yancey also points out that this may sound pious, but doesn’t follow the Biblical ideal of what prayer should be.

    Yancey writes: “The Bible records with approval all sorts of ‘selfish’ prayers: an infertile woman who wants a baby, a widow who needs more cooking oil,, a soldier who begs for victory in battle. People pray for rain during a drought, for vengeance on their enemies… Paul prays about safe travels, prosperous work, relief form a physical ailment and boldness in preaching. James urges prayers for wisdom and physical healing.”
    [Prayer: Does it Make any Difference?, Hodder 2006, p310]

    The main point Yancey wants to make in the book is that prayer is a way of communicating with, and getting to know, God. He adds: “After reviewing the prayers contained in the Bible, I have stopped worrying about inappropriate prayers. If God counts on prayer as a primary way to relate to me, I may block potential intimacy by devising a test for appropriateness and filtering out prayers that may not meet the criteria. According to Jesus, nothing is too trivial. Everything about me – my thoughts, my motives, my choices, my moods – attracts God’s interest.” [op cit, p.310]

    In addition to Yancey’s points outlined above, it’s worth remembering that prayer in Christian circles is often conducted within a corporate setting. Seeking God’s will as a community of believers is a helpful corrective in preventing prayer being self-focussed or selfish.

    Jesus instructs his followers to pray ‘in secret’ in Matthew chapter 6, verse 6. Given the context – a critique of hypocritical proud religious types – this is not an instruction for individuals to only pray on their own, but rather to pray in a humble way and not ‘for show’.

    Ultimately, prayer remains a mysterious part of Christian practice. The many therapeutic claims of prayer may be grounded in the way it meets human psychological needs. For many Christians, those psychological needs are met by the belief that God interacts with human beings through prayer, and that through prayer human beings can ask God for help with the problems they face.

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