Monday, February 28, 2011

Bargaining Prayer

What do your prayers sound like? Many of us actually pray silently, forming words only in our minds, producing no sound at all. A few of us actually pray without any words—silent or otherwise—just sitting before God in empty meditation. What about you? What do your prayers sound like?

Sometimes our prayers are simple petitions: “God, please help me be nice to my mother-in-law even though I want to strangle her.” Sometimes we pray words of thanksgiving: “God, thank you for this beautiful morning.” Often we utter words of contrition: “God, I’m sorry for so thoroughly screwing up.” One of my favorite prayers involves bargaining: “God, if you’ll help me get this job, I’ll go to church every week for a year.” I like to label that form of prayer as “the prayer of the desperate sixth grader,” because it sounds like something I would have prayed when I was 12—“God, if you can just make her like me, I’ll never be mean to my little brother again.

Whenever I talk or write about bargaining prayer, I usually do so in disparaging language, since it seems like such a ridiculous way to approach God. But there are examples of bargaining prayer in the bible (e.g. Exodus 32:11-14). In fact, I wonder whether all my prayers might be forms of bargaining with God. I wonder whether any “spiritual maturity” I may have gained in my prayer life might actually be an illusion.

In today’s lesson from the Gospel (Matthew 6:7-15), Jesus says to his disciples, “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Have you ever taken that seriously? Has any of us ever really believed that God already knew what we needed before we asked him? If we do, it transforms our entire approach to prayer.

If God already knows what I need and loves me without reservation, any words I try to put on prayer are superfluous—at least as far as God is concerned. Neatly enough, this also ties in with a high doctrine of God’s impassibility (see the Sunday school lesson to be posted later this week). God doesn’t need me to pray. He’s already going to take care of me whether I ask for help or not. Therefore, any words I utter to God are just my attempt to convince myself that I deserve whatever God will give me—bargaining of sorts.

Actually, there isn’t anything wrong with bargaining with God. God isn’t going to change. The only part of the relationship that is dynamic is us. When we bargain with God, we’re bargaining with ourselves. Whether we realize it or not, we’re preparing ourselves either to receive with thanksgiving what God will grant us or to release with comfort what God will withhold. Praying shapes us—not God. But there’s comfort in that, and that’s the reason we pray. We pray so that we might be changed—shaped, molded, stretched by degrees until our will aligns with God’s will. That’s why the prayer Jesus taught us is so simple and asks only what we need to get through another day.

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