Prayer language and the church of “me”


alanbrigish_210Last week’s discussion about how the language we use to describe God often turns into efforts to control and constrain God has provoked some interesting dialogue over the past several days.

One of the continuing conversations I’ve been having along those lines is how easily our prayer language can turn into that same kind of control language.

If your church is like mine, you probably have a time or some kind of opportunity for people to share prayer concerns. In nearly every church I’ve attended, probably 90-95% of the prayers ask God to intervene in situations regarding some kind of illness or injury.

Now don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with praying for God’s intervention in illness. There is a sense…and a very biblically-rooted one…in which we tend to pray out of our desperation. When we see a situation in which we have no control, our tendency is to turn to God. To ask, in essence, for a miracle.

So, you might be asking, what’s the issue? How does asking God to invoke his healing powers for the sake of a loved one constitute trying to control God?

Maybe the question is, when we ask God for healing–as noble a request as it is–what is it we’re really asking for?

In some ways, really, it’s control. It’s asking God to eliminate suffering (again, a noble enough request) and to reinstate our comfort (maybe not so noble). It’s asking God to do what we want for our benefit. We’ve lost control, and we want it back.

It’s a desire to be sure that me and my family and my friends get some special treatment.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with these kinds of prayers in and of themselves. It’s the attitudes behind them that we need to be wary of. Like the golden calf Aaron and the Israelites built in the desert, we have to be cautious that we’re not creating an idol of our own desires.

Think of it this way: Say there are two families in your church. Let’s call them Smith and Jones. The Smiths’ Uncle Pete has lung cancer in very late stages. The Jones’ Uncle Tom needs a kidney transplant. Uncle Pete happens to have two healthy kidneys that are a perfect match for Uncle Tom. But the doctors can’t risk operating on Uncle Pete to remove a kidney for transplant because of the risk due to his advanced cancer. The only way for the transplant to happen is for Uncle Pete to donate his kidneys postmortem.

Both families come before the church asking for prayers for healing for their uncles. But there is a very real sense in which for Uncle Pete to live, Uncle Tom will probably end up dead. And for Uncle Tom to live, Uncle Pete will have to die.

What is a good praying church to do?

Some will say, “We just pray for God’s will.” Which, on the surface, is fine.

But what does that do for the family that doesn’t receive the “miracle?” Are they somehow “out” of God’s will? How do they get any comfort from that?

A lot of this goes to the Evangelical mantra that “God is your personal savior,” that we are made for a personal relationship with Jesus.

We have, perhaps unwittingly, created a church of “me.” We begin to see our “personal” relationship with God as, by definition, superior to others’ relationship with God. After all, if God’s greatest concern is my well-being, doesn’t that automatically make my needs, my desires more important than everyone else’s?

I heard a talk by author Donald Miller one time that said something along the lines that God loves us all as individuals, but he sees us all as one. So while we are all infinitely loved and valued by our Creator, we are also all equally loved and valued.

Yes, we are loved just for who we are, just as we are, but we are also loved as part of a larger whole, as part of the human community. Each of us is part of all of us.

But our individualized gospel has reduced God to our personal wizard, doing our bidding to make our lives clean and happy and comfortable. It’s a notion that buys lock, stock and barrel into consumer culture and turns the creator of the universe into little more than another commodity to be bargained over.

There’s a story in the Bible where Jesus comes up against some religious leaders who aren’t buying his authority, so they ask him to perform some kind of miracle to prove it. Jesus calls them a “wicked and adulterous generation” and tells them they will receive “no sign…but the sign of Jonah.”

What Jesus is talking about is the popular story of the ancient prophet who spent three days in the belly of a fish before being spit back out. It’s a common allusion to Jesus’ death and resurrection three days later.

We often read that story and say things like, “Those jag-off Pharisees got what they deserved! No soup for you!”

But I think what Jesus is really saying isn’t just for the religious leaders who failed to understand, but for all of us. That “sign of Jonah” he was talking about wasn’t a rebuke to the Pharisees. It was the one sign that was sufficient for all of us.

Obviously, we’re never going to stop praying for God to intervene in our lives when things get tough. I’m not saying we should. I’m just saying we need to be aware of where our hearts really are when we pray those prayers.

What I hope we can pray for is for God to just reveal to us a moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week awareness of how good he is. That, whatever happens, we can trust him. That when things don’t go our way, when Uncle Tom or Uncle Pete don’t get the miracle, it’s not because God willed for one family’s relief at the expense of another’s suffering.

Let us pray to know God as good. As loving. As trustworthy. As beautiful.

Those are the prayers that give us the deepest comfort, the deepest assurance, even in the midst of pain and suffering.

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