06 The misuse of prayer

Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. (James 4:3)

From the very beginning we approach prayer with a grave misconception.  Our selfishness knows no bounds. In more or less naive self-love we look upon everything with which we come in contact as existing for our sakes, as something for us to make use of and to utilize to our own advantage. We think and act as though everything – inanimate things, plants, human beings, even our own souls – were created for the purpose of bringing gratification to selfish desires. And we make no exception for God.

As soon as we encounter Him, we immediately look upon Him as another means of gaining our own ends. The natural man in his relationship to God has this one purpose more or less consciously in mind: How can I, in the best way, make use of God for my own personal advantage? How can I make Him serve me best now, in the future, and throughout all eternity?

The natural man looks upon prayer, too, in this light. How can I make use of prayer to the greatest possible advantage for myself? This is the reason why the natural man seldom finds that it pays to pray regularly to God. It requires too much effort, takes too much time, and is on the whole impractical for the simple reason that one even forgets to pray. But when this same man gets into trouble in one form or another and cannot help himself or get help from anybody else, then he thinks that it might pay to pray to God. He then prays to Him as a last resort, often crying aloud in his distress; and when God does not put Himself at his disposal immediately and answer him, this man is not only surprised, but disappointed and offended, deeply offended. Why should there be a God, if He is not at the disposal of those who need Him? That God should exist for any other purpose than to satisfy the selfish desires of men, does not even occur to such people. Many are for ever finished with prayer after such an experience. Why pray if God won’t give you what you pray for?

It is not very difficult for us, who have opened our hears to the Spirit of prayer and have learned a little about prayer, to see that such people have misunderstood the meaning of prayer. The use to which they put prayer is wholly and completely a misuse of prayer. They pray in direct opposition of the very idea of prayer. That this does not lead to good results, but becomes a source of disappointment, is self-evident.

But it is not only the natural man who in this way misunderstands and misuses prayer. Unfortunately, many believers are often guilty of doing the same thing. We, too, have a carnal nature; and when we can gain some advantage or be delivered from some great suffering or misfortune, we have no objections whatsoever to praying. On the contraty, we, too, manifest a desire to pray, which is nothing short of wonderful.

We should well note that the temptation to misuse is native to us and comes automatically, therefore, to every believer. In Matthew 20:20-23 we have a typical example of misunderstood, misused and unanswered prayer. The sons of Zebedee came with their mother to Jesus one day and asked Him for the highest places of honour in the earthly kingdom which,  so they thought, was about to be established. Their prayer was no doubt offered in all innocence and good faith. They were cousins of Jesus and, together with Peter, had already been given positions of preference in the intimate circle of Jesus’ friends. What they desired was that Jesus at this early hour should also promise them the leading positions in the kingdom when it had reached its consummation.

Verse 24 says that when the other apostles heard what the two had done, they became offended. But Jesus reacted in an entirely different way; and what should we emphasize here? It is true that He replied immediately by saying explicitly that He could not comply with their request, but otherwise He took very kindly and understandingly to the whole affair. He advised them of their fault and explained everything to them. Such a tender and fervent tone runs through the whole admonition which Jesus gave them that it warms our souls. It tells us what Jesus’ attitude is towards us when we come by families into His presence and ask Him to favour us in every possible way and to avert from us all danger and all unpleasantness. He does not become angry with us as we might expect. He understands us, advises us of our mistakes, and tells us how we should pray.

This is what the Spirit of prayer undertakes to do every time we misuse prayer and ask for things for ourselves, for our own enjoyment. Lovingly and kindly, but firmly, He reminds us that this is not in accordance with the true meaning of prayer. He shows us that this is to pray amiss, and points out mistakes. To begin with, perhaps, we do not understand what He means. All we experience is inner unrest, both while we pray and after we have prayed. Besides, of course, we notice that our prayer is not granted.


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