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Selfish Prayer

This is probably another one of those articles that discusses something everyone else already knows and has already thought about, but for which I am a bit late to the party. I’m not necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer and sometimes you need to give me a little extra time to figure these things out. So bear with me. A little while ago, as I was sitting around waiting for something exciting to happen, I began thinking about the phrase “selfish prayer.” I’m not quite sure why, but the phrase just struck me as one that would be worth thinking about. And so I did. It turns out that it was well worth pondering.

As I first considered “selfish prayer” I thought about the obvious applications for it: prayers that revolve around me—my needs, my wants, my desires and my dreams. I pray selfishly when I focus primarily on what I want from God rather than what He wants for me. And I pray selfishly when I focus on what I want at the expense of what others may want or need. Though we read a good deal about prayer in the Bible, we still do not really know how it works. We know that God hears the prayers of those who are His children and that He sometimes chooses to answer prayer and sometimes chooses not to. We know that he warns against prayers that are offered in a spirit of pride, of prayers that are offered in a spirit of selfishness, and against prayers that are offered as testimonies to my own goodness rather than to God’s grace. Ultimately, we know that prayer is part of the secret counsel of God and much about it is hidden to us.

But these are things I have considered before. I have often thought of the strange fact that, during many of the wars that have raged in days past, men on both sides of the conflict have prayed to God for protection and victory. Perhaps the American Civil War was the most notable of these for there were God-fearing men, men who are known for their godliness and desire to honor and serve God, each trying to defeat the other and each pleading for God’s assistance in doing so. Why God ultimately chose to answer the prayers of Abraham Lincoln rather than those of Robert E. Lee is something we do not know. Somehow it served God’s purposes. These are difficult issues, but issues I’ve thought about and wrestled with in the past.

As I continued to consider selfish prayer I was struck with my own lethargy in prayer. I was struck by the fact that so often I am simply too lazy, too tired, too distracted to pray at all or at least to pray as I should. And this comes on the heels of witnessing some amazing answers to prayer and hearing testimonies about God’s goodness through prayer. Just yesterday our pastor hinted at some amazing things that are unfolding in and around our church and remarked “and this comes just after our church’s week of prayer.” Just this morning Dr. Mohler published an article in which he reflected on his time being critically ill. A lesson he learned in this crisis was the value of the blessing of friends and the reality of the Church. He was ministered to by members of his local church as well as believers he has never met. “Their concern was a great encouragement” he writes, “and their prayers were incredible gifts.”

This just confirmed what I had been thinking about yesterday. Prayer is not just something I do for myself. Prayer is not something I do even primarily for myself. Rather, prayer is something I do for God. My focus in prayer is not to be on me, but on God. My focus is not to be on what is important to me, but what is important to God. It may be, and should be, that these are one and the same. I do hope that I am captivated and stirred by what is of importance to God. Somehow, along this journey of life, and despite reading some very good books on the subject, I have adopted a selfish view of prayer that places me at the middle of the prayer. Instead of focusing on God and His will, my prayers have far too often focused on myself and my will. This has led to far too many prayers that go barely beyond myself.

A while back I read John Piper’s description of how he prays and it struck me that I pray in much the same way. He speaks of praying in concentric circles, beginning with himself, moving to his family and then his church and then growing ever-wider to communities, nations and the world. I love this method, but have realized how often I expend a great deal of time in that small circle in the middle. I put less time into the next circle and may just stop there. Maybe on a good day I move a little bit further. But sooner or later my prayers peter out and I see that I’ve given a lot more time to myself than to the rest of the world combined. This is selfish; it’s selfish prayer. In my laziness and in my selfishness I have denied others prayer that is rightfully theirs. In forgetting to pray for my community, I have robbed them of prayers I ought to have provided for them. Who else will pray for these people if I do not? Who knows the opportunities that have been lost because I have not been faithfully praying for them. In forgetting to pray for my friends, I have robbed them of prayer that should be an expression of my love for them. And who knows what pain may have been avoided and what trials they may not have faced if only I had been faithfully praying for them. As I move from the small circles to the large I see just how selfish my prayers have been.

So what is selfish prayer? It seems to me that perhaps the most selfish prayer of all is the prayer that is never uttered. It is the prayer that focuses on me and never reaches to others who are so desperately in need of God’s grace.