We were sitting in a restaurant and midway through our meal the wait staff pulled three tables together and seated a large family next to us. It was easy to guess that there were grandparents, their two daughters and six children all under the age of 12. They were loud and disorganized but not obnoxious.
When their food arrived, we were impressed as one of the moms quieted everyone, had them hold hands and proceeded to pray. Her prayer was memorable: “Dear God,” she prayed, “bless this food we are about to eat. Bless us each one. We need your blessing. You know we are really good people. We need good gifts from you, God. We only want good gifts. Please send us good things. ”
When she said, “Amen,” I sat there with mixed emotions.
I was proud of this mom for praying before a meal in a public place with a table full of kids. But I wondered what god she was praying to.
Have we forgotten the opening sentence of the first chapter of Rick Warren’s runaway bestselling book? “It’s not about you.”
Or, even more seriously, have we dismissed Jesus’ words? "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
The prayer is frighteningly selfish. Is God some kind of genie in a bottle that we can use to get whatever we wish for? Is God like Santa Clause who will deliver a nice present if we are good enough? Is prayer an exercise where we come to God with a list of everything we want and hope he will give us some of it? Should we treat prayer as if it’s some sort of lottery – maybe if we pray earnestly enough and ask for a long list of items, God might give us some of it, but only if he picks our number?
This must be the god of the little trinity – me, myself and I – but not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the manger, the cross and the empty tomb. The God of the ages, history’s maker, compels us to look beyond ourselves, to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” Micah 6:8
Now, before my voice mail and email are jammed with frustration, let’s make this clear: Jesus’ example of prayer teaches us to pray for essential needs – “give us this day our daily bread.” I can recall times – some recently – when I prayed for basics like gas money, groceries, and the payment of utility bills. And God faithfully provided.
James makes it very clear that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17) and we should recognize that He is a great giver. After all, He gave us the greatest gift in His Son, Jesus Christ. Do we really need more than that?
Should the primary focus of prayer – any prayer at any time – be what I want? When and where do we pray for understanding in the middle of pain and hardship? Or do we just pray that the hurt will be taken away?
There are scores of substantial examples to be followed when we pray. Here are two:
John the Baptist, who said, “He (Jesus) must become greater. I must become less.” John 3:30
Jesus prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." (Matthew 26:39)
How arrogant of us to pray for only for our own personal benefit! How sad that so many have such an undeveloped and mistaken understanding of God that they would pray, “You know we are really good people. We need good gifts from you, God. We only want good gifts. Please send us good things. ”
I recall hearing Jim Cymbala say, “We often make the mistake of praying for the presence of God’s blessings when what we really need is the blessing of God’s Presence.”