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Prayer and Meditation V - Wrestling with Motive in Prayer
Many people come to counseling with some level of doubt about the benefit of spiritual disciplines, or means of grace as they are called in my tradition. I think we can all relate to this on some level. Jesus taught his disciples in no uncertain terms that prayer is effective:
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14)
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
John clearly took those words of Jesus to heart, as they also appear in his letters:
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:13-15).
But is it not the case that we often petition God with prayers that go unanswered? We ask for things that are “according to his will”: that we be sanctified and “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3) and that God “sanctify [us] completely...[that our] whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). That latter prayer is followed by words of certain assurance: “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
What then are we to do when, instead of abstaining from sexual immorality, we “do not do what we want, but do the very thing we hate” (Romans 7:19)? I gave one potential answer to this question in my post When God Seems Silent. An additional answer in Scripture comes from James 4:1-10. The whole context is important and instructive, but the specific answer comes in verse 3:
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Now, immediately we want to say, if we pray for freedom from sexual immorality, how can the purpose possibly be “to spend it on your passions”? Isn’t freedom from passion what we are asking for?
The sad reality is that we sinful people are liable to wrong motives when praying for God’s sanctifying work. B.M. Palmer, in A Theology of Prayer, writes,
“The matter of the prayer may be right, while the spirit may be wrong...In man’s present estate, the opportunities for mistake are fearfully multiplied.”
We want to be free of the passion of lust so we can spend that freedom on the passion for an easy conscience. We want to be free from the passion of anger so we can spend that freedom on the passion for a conflict-free marriage. We want to be free of the passion for the praise of men so we can spend it on the passion for self- congratulation. In so many countless ways, our requests never leave the orbit of the self.
“Our selfishness knows no bounds,” writes Ole Hallesby; “the temptation to misuse prayer is native to us and comes, therefore, automatically to every believer.”
That, I believe, is the root of what James means by “spend it on your passions.”
Many writers on prayer and sanctification throughout the centuries have noted the crucial role of motive in our prayers and efforts for holiness. The Puritans of 17th century England were especially incisive on this point. Thomas Manton comments that “When we make self the purpose of prayer, it is not worship of God but self-seeking.” Manton then explains potential selfish motives in this way:
“Our ends and aims are wrong...When we pray for blessings with a selfish aim, and not with serious and actual designs of God’s glory, as when someone prays for spiritual blessings thinking only of his own ease and comfort, such as praying for pardon, heaven, grace, faith, repentance only in order to escape wrath...Your desires in asking are only right when they suit God’s purposes in giving. God’s glory is a better thing, and beyond our welfare and salvation.”
The “Prince of Puritans” John Owen wrote with a scalpel for a pen with the following words from his classic work On the Mortification of Sin:
“Hatred of sin as sin, not only as galling or disquieting, a sense of the love of Christ in the cross, lie at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification. Now, it is certain that that which I speak of proceeds from self-love. Thou settest thyself with all diligence and earnestness to mortify such a lust or sin; what is the reason of it? It disquiets thee, it hath taken away thy peace, it fills thy heart with sorrow, and trouble, and fear; thou hast no rest because of it...Did it not disquiet thee, it should not be disquieted by thee... Says God, ‘Here is one, if he could be rid of this lust I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this, or he is lost.’”
If it stung to read that, you’re in good company. The Puritan’s were masters of wielding the sword of God’s word for both comfort and conviction. This calls to mind T.S. Eliot’s depiction of Christ’s healing work from Four Quartets:
“The wounded surgeon plies the steel That questions the distempered part; Beneath the bleeding hands we feel The sharp compassion of the healer’s art”
It is “sharp compassion” to have our motives for holiness and victory over sin examined. It feels like adding yet another insurmountable burden – “I’m plagued with this besetting sin, and want nothing more than to be rid of it, but God hasn’t removed it. Now you’re telling me it might be because my motives are selfish? What am I supposed to do about that?” Well, Manton anticipated us, for after commenting on James 4:3 he asked this question: “how shall I set about getting my motives right in prayer?”
Manton, like the rest of the Puritans, was not just a pastor, not just a scholar, not just a theologian. They were soul healers, physicians of the soul. If they were still alive today they would have claimed rights to the field of psychotherapy, which simply means “soul healing”. So, lengthy as it is, and in Elizabethan English no less, listen to this prescription from Dr. Manton, MD, certified clinical soul healer:
“This is a necessary question. Nothing makes us see the necessity of divine help for our prayers so much as this. To act for a holy purpose requires the presence of the Spirit of grace; supernatural acts need supernatural strength. It is true in these internal things that “flesh gives birth to flesh” (John 3:6). Water cannot rise higher than its fountain; nature by itself aims at its own welfare, ease, and preservation. Therefore, go to God; beg for uprightness—that is his gift as well as other graces. The help that we have from the Spirit is to make requests “in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:27), or, as it is in the original, “in accordance with God”—that is, to make godly requests for God’s sake...So this teaches us what to do when our prayers are not granted. Let us not charge God foolishly but examine ourselves.”
We are unable to produce the holiness we pray for, but we are equally unable to produce the proper, God-honoring motive for holiness. Those who spend any amount of time in prayer will easily recognize the need for confessing such wrong motives. Here’s John Calvin:
“One of the requisites of legitimate prayer is repentance. Let every one, therefore, who prepares to pray feel dissatisfied with what is wrong in his condition, and assume, which he cannot do without repentance, the character and feelings of a poor suppliant.”
But “If we confess our sins,” even the sin of selfish motives in prayer, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
When by God’s grace we exercise the courage for such self-examination, we become willing to learn in a deeper way the true meaning and purpose of prayer. So,
“whenever we have caught ourselves misusing prayer in this way a few times, we will agree fully with the words of James quoted above [James 4:3]...We will realize how passionately selfish our own hearts are and how replete with egotism our whole prayer life has been. From the bottom of our hearts we will begin to cry, “Lord Jesus, teach me to pray!” Whereupon the great change takes place in our prayer life. Having learned not to trust in ourselves, not even when we pray, we cling helplessly to the Spirit of prayer whenever we pray. And henceforth it is the desire of our hearts to be kept from profaning and misusing prayer. The way is now open. Little by little the Spirit of prayer can now reveal to us the meaning of prayer and the ends toward which God would have us make use of prayer.” (Hallesby)
The end or purpose toward which God would have us pray, as Hallesby goes on to explain, is simply God’s glory:
“The fundamental law in prayer is this: Prayer is given and ordained for the purpose of glorifying God.”
Manton teaches us the same thing when he writes that
“God’s glory is the end of prayer and the beginning of hope, or else we can look for nothing.”
Of course, this is what Jesus teaches us to begin every prayer with: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” But because of our remaining sin that is not our natural desire, and thus the prayer for the hallowing of God’s name is a prayer of repentance.
“The truth is,” Helmut Thielicke writes, “that we cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer to the glory of God unless at the same time we pray it against ourselves. And he who has not yet earned to pray this prayer de profundis, out of the depths of repentance, has not really prayed at all.”
After repentance, the other implication in the petition “hallowed be thy name” is the petition that God grant us genuine desire for his glory. This is surely the heart of prayer, and so we will end these reflections with some wise and compassionate counsel from Helmut Thielicke:
“Whereas we would think that the Prayer could say, and quite rightly say: ‘Lord, lead me to further sanctification in my life,’ Jesus turns our attention away from ourselves, even from our pious selves, and concentrates it upon the Father. The prayer is not ‘May I be hallowed’ but ‘thy name be hallowed.’ What does he mean by this? Quite simply, he means to say that if I want to become a new man, I should not begin with myself, with my good intentions and my moral endeavors. This can only come to nothing...If Jesus does not teach us to pray, ‘Make me a consecrated, holy person,’ but rather teaches us to say, ‘Hallowed by thy name,’ what he is saying is this: ‘It doesn’t depend at all on your own exertions and your own inner progress; you can never set yourself up as your own goal. Everything depends on your being willing to honor God and let him work in your life, simply to stand still and let him be the ‘holy one’ who will actually have first place in your life, above all men and all things. Then the other will come of itself.”
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets.
Ole Hallesby, Prayer.
Thomas Manton, Commentary on the Epistle of James.
John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin.
B.M. Palmer, A Theology of Prayer.
Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.