READ: Psalm 138, Malachi 3, Matthew 20, Hebrews 2
In Matthew 20, a Mediterranean mother tries to secure high office for her sons. James’ and John’s Momma approaches Jesus and asks that her boys be given a leading role in the administration to come. Her prayer offends the other disciples most probably because they felt she jumped to the head of the queue and asked for her sons what they wanted for themselves. It was an errant prayer, but a common one. We can roll our eyes at this ambitious mother, but an honest review of our own hearts would reveal many times when we prayed for what we should not receive. There are two equal and opposite errors in prayer that followers of Jesus often make: we pray for the wrong things or we don’t pray for the right things.
Praying the wrong things. Our ambition (greed, lust, insecurity, fear, etc.) often leads us to pray for the wrong things. It was somewhat arrogant for the mother of James and John to request the highest office in the land, but we do the same things through a multitude of smaller prayers, whose accumulated whole intends nothing less than our elevation over others. Jesus is unable to answer our prayers for preferential treatment because it is against His nature to spoil His children, to prefer them over one another, or to grant the petitions that drive us away from His character. The character God actively forms in us is that of serving one another, becoming less important, elevating the needs of others before our own. When we ask for help to go in the opposite direction, He naturally demurs. God is especially adept at recognizing the prayers of false humility, the prayers that ask we be made small so we can become great.
Not praying the right things. If it is arrogant to ask for the wrong things, it is just as arrogant not to ask at all. We can view prayer as a nuisance to God and be so proud that in our self-contained existence we don’t ever bother Him. We can consider prayer as something for the weak, proud that we don’t ever request anything from God. The arrogance lies in thinking we are not weak, needy, and helpless. A further arrogance (though subtle and often blended with self-loathing) judges that we are unworthy of help, as if our wretchedness can trump God’s mercy. Who are we to think that our badness is stronger than God’s goodness? This is but an ironic elevation of ourselves.
Prayer is the breathing of the righteous for it comes naturally to them–even in their sleep. Prayer is neither an uncontrolled panting, a hyperventilation of spirit, nor a comically foolish holding of the breath in purposeless self denial. The prayer God created us to pray is a continual, steady dependence on Him. Not for what is not ours, but for the oxygen of Himself: our continual need.