by Mark Gutman

By Mark Gutman, January 22, 2014

Is intercessory prayer unselfish? A recent Sabbath School lesson praised “intercessory prayer,” suggesting that it is less selfish than most other prayers. “Frequently, prayer assumes a self-centered posture…. Intercessory prayer, however, focuses on another person’s needs, thus removing the likelihood of selfish motivation.”

I remember hearing of a prayer consisting of the words:

 

Dear God, Bless me and my wife,

My son, John, and his wife.

Us four, no more. Amen.

 

That prayer hardly strikes me as altruistic, even if it is “interceding” for three of the four people referred to. Never mind that the word “bless” is nonspecific, except to imply positive. If my list of three other people expands to twenty-three or three hundred, does that make it less selfish?

If your prayers for others are really “unselfish,” I would think they should include a whole lot of your enemies. Over the years I have seen some long prayer lists in churches. I don’t remember seeing the pope or Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein on those lists. (I realize that the current pope seems to be of a different sort than many of his predecessors, but some still regard him as a very bad person because of papal claims.) Sermons and lessons on prayer use certain texts over and over, but they strangely seem to miss Luke 6:28: “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you” (NLT). Phillips renders that as “pray for those who treat you badly.”

The fact that my “prayer list” is limited to people I know does not strike me as selfish in the sense that I do not have time to meaningfully focus on everybody. To major in one or two subjects in school so that you can master them, you’ll probably have to give up mastering most other subjects. To spend quality time with Bob or Mary and get to know them well, I have to limit time with almost everyone else. In conversation with God as a friend, I can most meaningfully talk with God about people I know something about, which rules out most people on the planet. If you hand me a prayer list, I suppose I can talk about the people or concerns in it, but I can’t talk with God about secondhand matters nearly as meaningfully.

If I am going to talk with God about my enemies, what is my guideline? The forgiving words of Jesus on the cross and Stephen as the rocks started hitting him? Or might I do a slight rewording of Psalm 137:9? “I’m sick of the way Fred (my hypothetical enemy) treats me. I hope someone bashes his head with a sledgehammer!” Is it okay to follow the example of those psalms that are given the impressive adjective “imprecatory”?1 Or am I supposed to be “nice” when I pray for Fred? After all, the Bible says, “Don’t rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble.”2

Okay, most people agree that it’s not nice to pray that Fred will suffer some kind of tragedy or pain. But just praying that Fred will see things my way is still a “make ME happy” prayer. Praying for bad things to happen to Fred—expressing the anger I really feel—can at least help me see that I have a lot of anger that I need to find a better way to deal with. Besides, what is unselfish about praying that God will help me be happy by changing someone else? “Someone is in my way, God. Please move him.” For some of us, isn’t that what prayer is all about?3 Getting God to change the weather or my health or my boss or my spouse? Or the availability of parking spaces?

 

Wait a minute. I can benefit from talking with God as I perhaps seek to understand why Fred is my enemy. Maybe I’m misinterpreting his words or actions or motives. He might be shocked to learn that I think he’s my enemy. Even if there’s no question that Fred is out to get me, maybe I need to understand where he’s coming from. I may remind him of a cruel teacher he had, or maybe he thinks I don’t like him, or perhaps he thinks my theology is dangerous. If I mull over where he’s coming from, I might be able to turn him into my friend. At least I can lessen my fear or anger and be more clearheaded or creative in dealing with him.

This year I’m tackling procrastination.4 When I work on a certain task, I ask myself what about that task I’m tempted to put off. When working on that task, I can also ask if I am putting off something else more important. So when I talk with God, I can benefit from checking to see which people I am not talking about. Why am I not talking about those people? Too painful? All the more reason to include them in my conversation with God. Maybe I’ll start thinking about how I have perhaps helped worsen or even caused the situation. (What’s that line? Be nice to your enemies; you made them.) It’s also possible that I talk with God about a person but never mention the underlying problem (the “elephant in the room”). If my prayer is meaningful, I will talk about what really matters. Hard feelings toward someone else matter.

Next time we congratulate ourselves for being so selfless when we pray for others, let’s take a look at (1) whom we’re praying for, (2) whom we’re leaving out, and (3) if we are simply hoping to feel better because our friends feel better. Don’t forget that the friend who is having problems may need to learn some lessons that require some hard times. Your wanting the friend to miss the hard times may overlook the fact that growth usually comes through struggle. People who run a marathon have run many miles of practice to be able to run the big one. My praying for a friend may be very selfish, in that I want the friend to enjoy all the benefits of struggle without actually having to struggle.

 

Prayer as conversation with God offers us a golden opportunity to deal with skeletons or elephants or hidden wounds. The longer we fail to take advantage of the opportunity, the more damage we allow. I can fill a visit to the doctor with pleasant chat about my exercise and good eating, while never mentioning the symptoms or habits that drove me to the doctor in the first place. Instead of filling our prayers with asking God to smooth the path for us and our friends, we’ll likely accomplish more good if we talk about matters we’re more uncomfortable with.

 

Prayers are self-ish in that they grow out of what is important to us. Talking with God about our struggles and the people we’re tangling with may not be the most thrilling work we do. But it will be more helpful than asking God to be a Santa Claus for all our friends.

 

1Invoking judgment, calamity, or curses—most notably, Psalms 69 and 109, but see also parts of Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 79, 83, 137, and 143.
2Proverbs 24:17, NLT. If I pray that my friends won’t stumble but I don’t include Fred in my friends list, am I by default praying that Fred will?
3I don’t think that’s what prayer is intended to be, even if it does describe how we pray. See my columns “Moving a Cruise Ship,” “Talking With a Friend” and “From ‘Gimme’ Monologue to Conversation” in 2012.
4Take a look at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay.