Written by Conrade Yap
Date: 22 March 2011
This is the final installment of a 3-part Lenten series on praying. In Part III, we look at the nature of prayer requests.
MAIN POINT: In many Christian circles, people ask for prayer requests all the time. The kind of prayers that we ask for reflect the state of our Christian health. Are we requesting for things to survive materially, or are we asking for things that help us to thrive spiritually? Our prayer requests can often divulge whether we are worldly-focused, or God-centered.
As I reflect upon prayer, I wonder about the kinds of prayers Christians ask for. What do I want to pray for when I look up to God? Among Christians, prayer requests are commonly asked of one another as a sign of brotherly and sisterly concern. For the sick, the prayer request will be for quick recovery. Before major examinations, people ask for help not to panic during the paper. In modern busy societies, the most popular request is for time management. The rationale is simple. For working professionals with heavy responsibilities in the office, and endless obligations at home, just keeping everything in check is a challenge in itself. What if the same person constantly mentions the same prayer request over and over again?
What about a prayer request for life?
As a kid, we are asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you are living in a prosperous country, with a stable economy with jobs and plenty of opportunities, you’ll probably be rattling off some of the popular professions like accountant, doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer, and so on. If you live in a rural area, chances are, you have to either help make ends meet by working on the farm or shop, running various errands, flip hot dogs or distribute newspapers. In some poorer places, parents may even need to sell their children away, in order to survive. In some parts of Asia and Africa, families are so poor, that fathers are known to give up their kids to work in manufacturing firms or plantations that use cheap human labour. Unfortunately, many of our prayer requests are often filled with requests on how to survive materially. Very few ask on how to THRIVE spiritually.
A) Praying for ‘Survival?’
This world is not fair. The rich gets all the ‘best things’ money can by. The poor gets the humble crumbs and unjust treatment. Sometimes, injustice reigns supreme when the rich folks use their influence, power and money to abuse the poor. Humanly speaking, all of us have our own problems and weaknesses. Switch the roles. Test the people. One will soon realize that the results will be more or less the same. Anyone clothed in riches can become corrupt. The rich get richer, the poor poorer, and the rest of us simply wanting to be rich. One day.
We all need a sense of direction in life. We are all poor. Even for those of us blessed with lots of material possessions, our hearts are mysteriously poor. This brings me to a new definition of what being rich is.
Being rich is not a matter of taking and accumulating stuff. It is not craving for more, but in being content with little. It is not how much we want, but how little we need. Being rich is not a life of taking and grabbing, but one of giving and forgiving. In order to survive a spiritual war, we need to learn contentment. We need to cultivate sharing. We need to practice giving. Without these threesome attitudes, we will fight a losing battle to even meet our own expectations. With these three attitudes, we get ready to jump out of our quicksand of material possessions, up onto the cloud of heavenly riches.
This is a strange irony. Developing economies are materially poor. Developed societies are spiritually poor. Many of us are directionally poor. Lack of purpose. Lack of intentionality. Lack of real hope in the future.
Praying for survival is not simply asking for things to be done in our way. It is in RIGHT-SIZING our own expectations with God. Our prayer requests need to be wisely conceived in the light of God’s Word. It cannot simply be another means to achieve worldly ends. Neither should prayer requests be another attempt at filling ourselves with worldly things that do not satisfy. If we continue to ask for things in order to please and fill our fat stomachs, we will impoverish ourselves spiritually. Our hearts remain empty. Our lives run empty.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
Constant prayer requests for worldly concerns make us thirsty for more stuff. They keep us stuck in a whirlpool of struggling to survive.
B) Running on Empty
A story was told of a lion and a gazelle both running for survival. Each morning, the gazelle wakes up and realizes that it needs to run faster than the fastest lion in order to survive. Likewise, the lion wakes up, and tells itself it must run faster than the slowest gazelle in order to survive. Whether gazelle or lion, each day, BOTH MUST BE RUNNING. The wise man Qohelet reminds us again in Ecclesiastes.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Eccl 3:11)
If we are always running on empty, why then are we filling ourselves up with prayer requests for things that are ultimately empty? Those with houses soon ask for a bigger house. Those with cars will ask for bigger cars. Those with jobs will ask for better jobs. Those with education want more education. Yet, these things ultimately will not satisfy. The 19th Century Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh reminds us about our need to grow up.
“If boyhood and youth are but vanity, must it not be our ambition to become men?”
Constant prayer requests for vain things will keep us from growing up. They are like hidden ceilings that curb true spiritual growth. They keep us running empty, instead of running to God.
C) Praying to Thrive
What is needed is for us to retain a heavenly mindset when it comes to prayer requests. This is how the men and women of God thrive spiritually. This is how the great saints of the past win spiritual battles,. They overcome the world, beginning with themselves. St Augustine of Hippo, confesses:
“Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (Augustine, Confessions, Book I.i.1, Oxford, 1998, p4)
In praying to thrive, we recognize that we are all needy people, but the chief need in us is for God. In praying to thrive, we recognize our restless souls, and the core need in us is to find rest in God alone. In praying to thrive, we cannot remain fueled with worldly things that keeps us in a state of lust. We must pray for things that will last from now to eternity. Emptiness, neediness, restlessness, and the wistfulness for the things of the world will only make us more miserable. They make our emptiness echo an unbearable meaninglessness. They misrepresent our neediness. They prescribe erroneous solutions. They distract and keep us away from seeking God. They enlarge the hole in our pockets. They widen the cracks in our fragile hearts. They deepen the despair of the human soul.
In praying to thrive, must fight selfish desires, and embrace selfless efforts to see the needs of others more important than our own. During my undergraduate years, I experience a strange paradox. When I focus mainly on my own studies, and ignore others around me, I find my heart heavy with self-needs. At one time, I fall easily into depression, always thinking about why the odds stack so heavily against me. I fail to notice that the world is larger than my own.
Interestingly, when I start noticing others around me, I begin to get a better sense of the real world outside me. I see that some struggle genuinely more than me. The University is not a place for individual gains, but a place to learn together with a community of people. Pack in a bunch of selfish students and we get self-seeking graduates. Gather a group of selfless individuals, and when they graduate, they can change the world. Subsequently, those who learn to live with others, (rather than alone), fare a lot better in the working world.
D) A Suggestion for a Prayer Request
How then do we pray? The Amish people continues to impress me with their gentle, quiet and selfless giving nature. For them, actions speak louder than words. For them, prayers are always humbly made. They are almost always more God-centered than man-centered. Amish people are so humble that they do not compose their own prayers. Instead, there are always 2 forms of prayer each time they pray. The first one is a silent prayer. The second one is a prayer by their minister. Donald Kraybill and his co-authorsl, curiously ask about what they actually pray for. Here are their findings.
“In a typical Amish worship service, which includes two sermons and two prayers, the first one is a silent one. When we asked Amish people what they pray during their time of silent prayer, without exception they answered, ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ The second one is read by a minister. . . . and always includes the Lord’s Prayer.” (Donald Kraybill, et al, Amish Grace, San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p94)
Wow. Nothing mentioned about time management. Nothing about asking to relieve one’s anxieties or self-needs. No prayer requests about healing, or all those commonly uttered in North American circles. Simply the Lord’s Prayer. That is truly praying for God alone, and for God’s work to be accomplished in our lives. The next time, somebody asks you how they can pray for you, do you dare to ask him/her to pray the Lord’s Prayer for you?
Thought: “The value of consistent prayer is not that He will hear us, but that we will hear Him.” (William McGill)
Beware. The kind of prayer requests we make, often reveals whether we are trying to survive materially, or desiring to thrive spiritually.
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