Selfish vs. Personal Prayer

You know what I absolutely despise?  Guilt.  I cannot stand the feeling of guilt.  Feeling guilty about something is up there with nausea and diarrhea, if you ask me.  But I guess that’s how guilt is supposed to be.

Lately I’ve been feeling guilty about my prayers. I’ve been doing a lot of studying over prayer, and seemingly everything I read talks about not being selfish in our prayers.  The passage in James 4:3-4 is part of the basis for my guilt – “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”  I ask a lot of personal requests of God, and I can honestly say that some of them are selfish, and my motives are not as much spiritual in nature as they are physical.

But does this passage necessarily say that we should not ask God to intervene in the personal, minute details of our lives?  I don’t think so – I think this passage is directed at people who do things like ask God to help them win the lottery so that they no longer have to work, can buy a small island in the Caribbean, and can just relax for the remainder of their lives.  But asking God to provide for your daily needs or to intervene in other ways is not always a bad thing.  Jesus directed us to pray for our daily needs when he was teaching his disciples to pray in Matthew 6.  In verse 11, he instructs them to pray “Give us today our daily bread.”  And this is coming from the mouth of God himself!

There are plenty of examples in the Bible where people made personal requests of God.  If you look at the request in isolation, it appears fairly selfish, or at the very least, it appears to not have much bearing on the kingdom of God.  But if you look at each one in view of the entire Bible, you see that God answered their request, and that by doing so, it affected more than just that person.  Here are some of these examples:

  • Eliezer, Abram’s senior servant, had been sent to find a wife for Isaac, Abram’s son, from among Abram’s relatives (apparently, this was okay back in the day).  When Eliezer got to the land of Abram’s relatives, he prayed:

    “LORD, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” (Genesis 24:12-14)

    Little did Eliezer know, he wasn’t just praying for God to help him with his personal task…he was asking God to find a wife for Isaac, who would bear their son Jacob, who God would rename Israel, and would create an entire people-group around.  Eliezer’s personal prayer had eternal consequences.

  • Solomon had been made king at a young age. Concerned that he may not be able to carry out the duties of the king because of his youth, he prayed:

    ” ‘…give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?’  The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, ‘Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.’ ” (1 Kings 3:9-12)

    Solomon was asking a personal request, something that would help him. Some might consider this selfish, but God saw Solomon’s heart, and knew that he was asking with the right motives, and he granted it because it was in the interest of God’s kingdom. And on top of that, God gave him what he didn’t ask for as a reward for his righteous request.

  • Zechariah had been praying for a child for quite some time, most likely.  When the angel appeared to him, he said:

    “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.” (Luke 1:13)

    Zechariah’s prayer for a child was a personal request, but God had big plans for John (though I doubt Zechariah knew that when he was praying). John became the fore-runner for Christ, and in Christ’s own words, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28).

  • Hezekiah, king of Israel, was ill and was told that he was going to die.  He prayed to God:

    ” ‘Remember, LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: ‘Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler of my people, “This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the LORD. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.” ‘ ” (2 Kings 20:3-6)

    God answered Hezekiah’s prayer to save his life. It’s not readily apparent as to what greater Kingdom purpose was involved in answering his prayer, but my study pointed out that after Hezekiah was better (in the 15 years he remained living), he fathered a son – Manasseh – who, although he was a wicked king, preserved the Davidic line for the coming of the Messiah.

In all of these situations, the person praying was making a personal request of God without much, if any, knowledge of how it might affect God’s Kingdom. To them, it was just a personal prayer request – an area in which they wanted God to intervene in their lives. God did, and He had plans in each situation to further His Kingdom through the answer of each request, regardless of the motive behind the requests themselves.

This was encouraging to me today, because it allowed me to lose some of my guilt for praying for things that are personal, and that don’t seem to have much influence on the Kingdom of God.  I realized that I don’t always know what God’s will is, and being a normal guy, I have no clue what God’s plans are in every situation. I think I will continue to pray for personal requests, and let God do the sorting out of what is important and what is not.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to pray to win the lottery so that I can buy a small island in the Caribbean, but I think I’ll be less hesitant to present my requests before God in general.

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