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The Prayer Dilemma

04_27[1].jpg“We do not know how we ought to pray.” Romans 8:26

The Little Leaguer steps into the batter’s box, scrapes his cleats on the dirt and takes a few vicious practice swings. Briefly glancing to the sky, he says “Please, God, let me hit a home run.” Out on the mound, the pitcher watches his opponent intently. Gripping the ball tightly, he toes the rubber slab and breathes into his well-oiled glove “Please, God, let me strike him out!” Up in heaven, God surveys the entire scene with some amusement and lets nobody know his decision. In most cases, he seems to answer the prayers of the player who spent the most time in practice. Then again, the player with the most athletic skill gets his way much of the time.

Believers often find themselves caught in the human side of this dilemma. How should we pray? Is it wrong to pray for personal gain? Are our prayers wrong? When we pray for right things, where are the answers? Why does God tell us to ask whatsoever we will in his name when it often seems so ineffective? Does a larger principle govern the whole process?

First of all, let’s admit that we all want certain things, and some of us are willing to do just about anything to get them. James 4:1-5 says, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” The origin of human conflict lies in the competing interests that we have with others, with nature, with ourselves, and even with God. While we say we believe in equality, we want to be first among equals or at least equal first.

The next verse shows the extent to which we go to get what we want. “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.” Other translations render this verse differently. “You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.” NASU. We may not actually commit murder, but we may boil over with hatred and murderous intent. More likely, our anxiety causes us to resort to fighting and quarreling with each other. “If God won’t give it to me, I’ll get it myself!”

Much of the time, however, we turn to prayer when nothing else works. “You have not because you ask not.” We kill, covet and wage war. We worry, fret and stew. We speculate, manipulate and negotiate. We strategize, improvise and apologize. It is not so much that we neglect prayer; it is that we perceive it as weak. Rhetoric aside, prayer seems to be the feeble dregs of advice, mumbled by an uninspired mind.

Here is where we find ourselves gored by the horns of the dilemma. “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” Does this scripture mean that we should never ask anything for ourselves? Not quite, but close. There is a difference between wishing for something and praying for it. Pray for transportation, not a Mercedes Benz. Pray for clothing, not designer fashions. Pray for your daily bread, not for the whole loaf.

Prayer elevates and sanctifies its objects. Even as God told Simon Peter not to call the things he cleansed common or unclean, neither should we treat common or unclean things as cleansed or holy. When you pray for something, it takes on a serious, sober intent. Therefore, while temporal goals, carnal desires and frivolous gadgets make appear on our wish list, they don’t deserve our prayers. When we pray for those things, we ask amiss. James is talking about inappropriate praying. We must reserve our prayers for things that have eternal significance.

But what about praying for things with eternal value? Shouldn’t God always answer those prayers? Remember, “asking amiss” also refers to the why and how of a particular prayer, not just to its substance. A few years ago, I earnestly began praying that God would bless our church with a windfall of finance. Why? So I could give huge amounts to foreign missions and other spiritual needs. It didn’t happen. Eventually, God gently let me know that he had lots of ways to get money to the right places. He didn’t need me to be his clearing house. The fact is that many of our “spiritual prayers” are vocalized wishes of a carnal heart. Prayer for revival must not serve human notoriety. Prayer for church growth must not find its basis in pride. Prayer for spiritual triumph must not be a thinly veiled excuse to exalt the one praying.

The prayer dilemma is resolved by praying prayers that truly reflect the heartbeat of God, without regard to the consequences of glory or credit. “The Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Romans 8:26.

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