A minister was counseling a parishioner on how to restore meaning to his dry and discouraged prayers. He told the parishioner that for one month in his daily prayers he was not to offer a single request for himself, or his family, or to bring any of his affairs before God.
Dumbfounded, the parishioner asked, “What then shall I pray for?” The minister was unyielding, “Ask for anything that is in your heart only not once for yourself.”
At first, the man could find nothing to pray for. He would begin a familiar petition, but would then have to drop it because it was asking something for himself.
It was a serious but enlightening month for him and he learned a great lesson. He could see that in praying only for himself and his needs he was praying selfishly, and that kind of self-preoccupied prayer doesn’t awaken in us the larger concerns for God’s kingdom. Before the month was over passion was coming back into his prayers.
The man’s state had been sad because prayer is not only for the satisfaction of our own needs. It also aligns us with God’s will, and then moves us to entreat his favor on the lives of others, even at a distance, who have a pressing need for our prayers.
Such further-reaching prayers can bring joy back into our prayer times. Archbishop Trench wrote, “Lord, what a change within us one short hour / Spent in thy presence will avail to make!”
And the late Ruth Graham had this bigger picture. She wrote. “We cannot pray and remain the same. We cannot pray and have our homes remain the same. We cannot pray and have the world about us remain the same. God has decreed to act in response to prayer. ‘Ask,’ he commands us. And Satan trembles for fear….”
To be a follower of Jesus and to have a prayer life that is dry or even non-existent is very sad because, as George Buttrick wrote. “… if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with him is our first concern, worthiest art, best resource, and sublimest joy. Such prayer could brood over our modern disorders, as the Spirit once brooded over the void, to summon a new world.”
The pastor suggested for his parishioner a simple adjustment in prayer but one that refreshed the daily experience of prayer for him — and could work for us too. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” That’s personal. But ahead of that he taught them to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven.” That kind of petition extends prayer’s range and increases its joy.
George Buttrick gives us a good tip about prayer: such praying could become our “sublimest joy”.