Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Prayer and Selfishness

" Our Father who art in heaven."

What does this mean?
"With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are his true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father."

Being a daughter of Adam and Eve, I have a problem with selfishness. (Yes, I realize that you all know that already.) Besides being selfish toward my neighbor, I have come to realize that I am selfish toward God as well.
I want God to make me what I want to be. To make me respected, admired, accomplished, successful, even loving and gentle. To keep me from disgrace, from ignorance, from being left out, from pain, even from sin and temptation.

Obvously, some of these desires are good and right, and some are truly selfish. In reality, even my best desires are tainted with selfishness. When I pray to be kept from temptation, am I really asking that I not be subjected to the hardship of resisting temptation? When I pray that I might be gentle, am I motivated by the desire to have other people respect me for my gentleness? No matter what I pray, I find that sin has crept into my motivations.

So how and what does prayer ask? I have been mulling over this question since kindergarten days. At one time, I thought that we should never ask anything for ourselves. Another time I was sure that I must enumerate all needs every night so that I would wear God down like the persistent widow. For a while, I concluded that we should pray only for our neighbor's needs and salvation, and still later, I surmised that maybe we shouldn't bring any requests at all. Perhaps only praise was what God wanted.

Two thoughts. First, as I have been reminded many times in these past two months but am never tired of hearing, prayer is the voice of faith. It is the voice that trusts that for Christ's sake God's answer to us is "Yes". It is the voice that speaks to God what He has already said about himself and asks for what He has already promised to give.

Second, I find Luther's explanation of the introduction to the Lord's Prayer fascinating.

...so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask him as dear children ask their dear Father.

How and for what do dear children ask their dear father? Do children only ask stuff for their siblings, for their friends, for their pets? Are children, even dear ones, selfless? Are they thankful? Are they even always polite in their requests? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

So, if we are to pray like children making requests of their paternal parent, then we are to pray even in our selfishness. We are to speak to God with concerns, requests, and thanks.
And we are do do this boldly. I don't know about you, but the thought of talking to God in the same way I sometimes (to my shame) have talked to my dad has me trembling. One word of that, and I would be expecting a lightning bolt! How strange that we are to speak to the Almighty Triune God with boldness and confidence in the same way we address Dad?

And though we must pray in selfishness because of our fallen human nature, we need not fear. We can be confident. How is this possible? Because Jesus already died in my place for all the selfishness and sinful motives that taint even my prayer to him. His blood makes my prayer acceptable.

I used to think that Christ made prayer acceptable to God simply by the fact that God listens to those who have faith and not to those who don't. That was when I still unconsciously assumed that a human could pray totally purely and righteously. Then I looked in the mirror.....

Looking in that mirror of the Law, I can see that my prayer is not holy. My hands folded or raised are not 'clean hands' nor do my words arise out of a 'pure heart'. Even as I open my mouth to pray, my soul is lifted up to the idol of myself and in doing so I call upon God deceitfully. (psalm 24) I definitely cannot 'ascend the hill of the Lord' or 'stand in his holy place' on my own. Such filth as comes from my lips would surely not enter the presence of the Lord who is only Holy. But thanks be to God! Jesus does not save us by making us capable of pleasing God. Rather, He pleases the Father in our place. He makes prayer acceptable to God by cleansing it from our sin through his blood. In a literal sense, Christ died to pay for our prayer.
Isn't that a thought!

So in spite of my selfishness, I pray. I can do this boldly because of Christ, even though my flesh tempts me to doubt that my prayer is acceptable to God. For His sake, I know that all God's promises are "Yes" for sinners like me.

That is what I learned from Luther this week.

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