“I’m gonna pray now; anyone want anything?” –Flip Wilson
Prayer can be self-centered or God-centered. We can offer self-serving prayers to God or we can offer self-emptying prayers to God. In fact, most if not all “religious acts” can be about either God or me. To a crowd on a mountainside, Jesus pointed out that fasting, prayer, or giving to the poor can become methods of receiving honor from people rather than ways of giving honor to God.
Comments made on the hurried drive from church to our favorite place for Sunday lunch can betray our self-focused attitude toward worship: “I just didn’t get much out of worship.” “People just weren’t friendly to me.” “Why did she feel like she had to ask for everyone to pray?”
Words that on the surface appear to be prayer addressed to God can be more about the self-absorbed speaker than the self-sacrificing God in heaven. “Give me, God…give me, give me, give me!” God becomes a vending machine, insert the right configuration of words and whatever you want falls into your hands.
Prayer can be self-congratulatory: “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income’” (Luke 18:11-12 NLT).
Or prayer can reveal a healthy self-awareness. “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner’” (Luke 18:13 NLT).
Moving from self-centered prayer to God-centered prayer does not mean we stop asking God for blessings, but it may mean a renewed understanding of what blessings we should seek. Flip Wilson’s one-liner makes us laugh because we know our tendency is to ask for “blessings” that will make us happy and comfortable rather than seeking God.
Often I find myself drawn back to the prayers of God’s people in scripture. When I overhear the conversations with God that these men and women of God were having, it helps me re-orient my prayers from self to God. One example on my heart this morning is Paul’s intercessory prayer for the church at Philippi. “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).
I wonder how Flip would have reacted if someone responded to his question by saying, “Yeah, I’ll take some wisdom, discernment, and purity.”