Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Don't be over-spiritual!

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler; rise and come to my aid... May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame... Psalm 35:1-3

Jesus cried out in a loud voice... “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34

I recently read an interview with a quite prominent Christian. He was asked, among other things, about his prayer life. To this he replied, “I never pray for myself; I only ever pray for other people.”

I wonder how that strikes you? My first reaction was to feel very small - I’m afraid I couldn’t make anything like the same claim! It led to a bit of soul-searching, a bit of self-questioning. Are my prayers in essence selfish? Do I need to rethink completely the way I pray?

But then I thought: hang on a minute! Is this man claiming to be better than many examples we find in both the Bible and in Christian history? Better, in fact, than Jesus? Is he right to never pray for himself?

In fact (look out! - confession coming up), I found myself starting to get a bit cross, even judgmental. Who does this sanctimonious, super-spiritual creep think he is (you can tell, just in case you don’t know me, that I’m not really a very nice person)? Isn’t saying “I never pray for myself” tantamount to claiming to be superior to us lesser mortals who do pray for ourselves?

And I thought of Psalm 35, and the words I have quoted. In the first three verses the words “me” or “my” occur five times (I’ll leave you to tot up how many more me’s and my’s there are in all twenty-eight verses). Psalm 35 is pretty much a random example - I could have gone for literally dozens of other places, not least Jesus’ prayer of agony on the cross.

The kernel of truth in what that man said is obvious enough: something is very wrong if we only, ever pray for ourselves. Of course! I hope none of us need to be told that. But let’s never be ashamed of the fact that we are in a deep, personal relationship with God, and at the heart of that relationship is conversation, dialogue, and dialogue means, among many things, talking to God about the things that excite or trouble or worry or puzzle us. How then can we not pray for ourselves? He is our father; we are his children.

I would sum it up like this: it is perfectly all right to pray for ourselves; but those prayers should not be selfish. How can that be? Here are two suggestions.

First, focus on holiness rather than happiness

We all want to be happy, of course: that’s natural. But none of us has a right to happiness. 

The top priority in the Christian life is to be made more like Jesus, and the fact is that in this slow, life-long, day-by-day process, one of God’s main tools is a dose, large or small, of unhappiness. The bumps, as they say, are what you grow on. If we pray only for our own happiness we are missing the point of life; and we will remain shallow (not to mention deeply unsatisfied) as people.

Second, focus on usefulness rather than personal fulfilment.

Again, there is nothing wrong with being keen, even ambitious, to make the most of the talents and gifts God has seen fit to give us (and these may be things which have nothing at all to do with “religion”). But if we are Christians our chief motive when it comes to “making something of my life” is to be of service to God. The nineteenth-century hymn puts it perfectly: “O use me, Lord, use even me,/ Just as thou wilt, and when, and where...” Amen!

One of the greatest things the New Testament says about Jesus is this: “Even though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God something to be taken advantage of, but made himself nothing (literally, emptied himself)” (Philippians 2:7). If we can boil that down and apply it to ourselves: you become somebody when you are happy to be nobody.

Holiness and usefulness... Aren’t these essentially what the Christian life is about? Other things certainly have a claim upon our prayers - health, work, money, family, you name it - but they find their rightful places if we keep these key priorities uppermost in our minds.

Father in heaven, thank you that you love me so much as to be concerned with all my worries and troubles, my joys and pleasures, and that I can talk to you about the biggest and the smallest. But help me always to put first the things that matter most, the heavenly and eternal things, and the needs of others. Amen.

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