Prayer is no place for illusions. Yet, each of us clings to illusions, and we will end up somehow bringing them into our prayers. This leads to what James called "asking amiss". The Spirit is working to tell us the truth, and the growth of our relationship with God depends on how well we take heed. Yet we still pull our tricks, play our games, tell our lies in prayer. We still "ask amiss". We pray wrongly.
Puppeteering and Ventriloquism
One of the growing problems of the church is that it can't seem to get it through its thick skull that God controls the outcome of prayer. Not the Church, not the minister, not the person who prays. It's not at all rare that a pastor does a political sermon where he/she is doing nothing more than playing ventriloquist with a dummy labeled 'God'. (Aside from being idolatrous, it's not funny.) So it is also with the "health-and-wealth" pseudo-gospel where the church or the believer 'prays' with the attitude of a puppeteer: pull the string, and God's hand stretches out to send forth a blessing. God is not a genie in a lamp; our wish is not God's command. God is not a PEZ dispenser, where you lift the head and out comes a treat. If we are asking anything from God, we are to be asking, not putting in a 1-800 call to a divine telemarketing service or clicking our mouse to reach a multi-level marketeer in some level of heaven. (God doesn't outsource divine attention. God receives your call direct.) God is bigger than you, so don't go bossing God around.
Jesus taught us to pray that God's will be done. That means seeking God's purposes instead of seeking a new car or a passing grade or a fast-track promotion or a miraculous sign. Jesus didn't promise earthly bliss in 30 days or less, or make a ten-point listicle of how to get there. Jesus' promises are for those who abide in Him, who put themselves at His service and draw their love from His. His brother James (4:3) said you don't receive, because you ask so you can spend it on pleasures for yourself. There is such a thing as the wrath of God, and one sure way to provoke it is to try to jerk God around for one's own advantage. The Lord will redirect your thoughts as you spend more time with Him. God has something great in store; pray for it!
Related to this is the idea of prayer as negotiation with God. Yes, Abraham, Moses, David, and the Prophets did this. But they did so in their role of representing God's people before God. When you say, "If You give me that job with a bigger paycheck, then I promise I'll be more generous!" or anything else with an "If You...then I'll...", you're not trying to save your people, you are either looking for selfish reward, or you are putting God to the test. If so, you're not praying, you're negotiating for yourself, you want to cut a bigger deal. Like, you must get paid before you do your part in God's purposes? What is this, a business deal? If so, it isn't prayer, which is a communication within a covenant with God.
Praying a Laundry List
Prayer is not a laundry list. It is communication with someone you love and trust. So don't only ask when you want something, and don't stop praying once you run out of things you want. Prayer is as much listening ('meditation') as it is talking, as much a sharing as it is a plea for help. Yet, Jesus asked us (even dared us?) to ask. Nothing's too small, too big, too hard, or for that matter too twisted by our selfishness or lack of perception, for God to hear our prayer and take account of it.
God's here, in the world in which we live, involved in what's going on. A lot of it flies in the face of divine will, but God's very good at finding ways to make the best out of the bad situations created by the skewed creation we are a part of. Even our own worst foul-ups.
Ask, and ye shall receive -- but often ye shall receive something else that's more in keeping with what God needs from you. And it will come in God's time, not ours. God promises those who believe in Christ a loving response. But remember it's not just a matter of praying to God, but God reaching out to you.
Labels and Name-Calling
In the Bible, Jesus shares the story about a fixture in the religious community who thanked God he was not like that traitorous tax collecting low-life scum over there. It's not only an example of being prideful, it's an example of reducing a person to a category. Categories are useful for understanding data, but they're dreadful for understanding a person. Categories don't tell the truth about people; people just don't fit. You may not be as out front about it as the proud man of the parable. But do you ever pray about people as if they would have some pre-slotted attitude or worth? It's not hard to find people who pray to God about a "godless liberal" or "heathen" or "hypocrite" or "snob", and so on. But treating people according to a label can be almost as harmful when we mean good by it, because we're not treating that specific person as the person they actually are. It's bad that the world around us de-personalizes people; it's sin when followers of Christ do so, since we know better. Christ died not just for all of us, but for each of us. 'Them', too. Pray like it!
Is It Fair to Compare In Prayer?
The religious leader of that same parable was doing something else which has no place before God. He was comparing himself (favorably, of course) to someone else. God isn't weighing you against anyone else: no one of today and no one of the past. Like a good mother does with her children, God may not love us all the same way, but God loves each of us completely for who we are. Someone who suffers depression is prone to fall into the mental trap of saying, "I'm not as worthy as (someone else)", or "God, why did you make my life so miserable and that jerk's life so happy". That can be a real downer. But that's not how God sees you. Your real worth is what God deems you to be, and how good or bad or happy or pathetic others are just doesn't affect your value. If that's so, then there's no reason to let comparison creep into your life, especially not in prayer. All it does is twist what you ask for and dull your response.
Using Cliches instead of Thinking
When left to our own devise, many of us fall back on well-rehearsed prayers or religious clichés. It's such an easy thing to do. Clichés are always in our mind, lightly attached to real meanings. If your mind is not engaged, those easy sayings become spiritual wallpaper, serving the same purpose as elevator or supermarket music. It's like a rhythm section vamping, playing mindless stuff to preoccupy the audience while the lead singer changes costume. You hope to delay until prayer time runs out and you can get back to living without sharing with God any of the hard stuff. The easy sayings help you to bypass having to come to grips with what's really going on in your mind. Not that there aren't times to use prepared or written prayers; a well-written prayer can sometimes express your mind better than you can, and can help a group of people have the same prayer together. But prayer time is no time to vamp. Yes, God has all the time in the world, and is very patient. But isn't God worth enough to you for you to be real with God, and with yourself? To get down to the nitty-gritty (oops -- that's a cliché), to say what's really on your mind, in the way it is when it's on your mind? God's waiting for your attention and your honesty. Give it.
In This Town, Everyone's Got A Plan
Sometimes what you desire is not material at all. Sometimes you just want the sense of control that comes from having everything go according to plan. You believe that if everything follows your plan, it will work out best for yourself and those you care about. Or so you think. So you pray an argument with God, trying to convince God that you have it right, that you know the way to go. Trying to talk God into giving your plan a divine blessing. Once again, we forget who is the God here. Our plans are puny when stood next to God's. They're all twisted up in curly-queues, driven by motives deeper than we're aware of. They're not big enough where big counts, not detailed enough where it matters, not wise enough to prevent us from looking stupid, not broad enough to make up for unintended consequences. The Lord already has a plan under way, called "the Kingdom of God". It's the plan that will take effect, with or without you, like it or not. Thank God for that, or we'd really be sunk! Pray that God will guide you into the part of this plan that was meant for you.
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