When you pray, don't drive God up the wall

One Christmas break when I was about ten, I got incredibly bored and drove my parents up the wall. School was out for a couple weeks, and I couldn't find much to do. With impeccable logic, I reasoned that my parents ought to let me open one present before Christmas. It should be something I could play with. Not my biggest present, so as to detract from the singular grandeur of December 25. Just a strategically chosen toy or game that would occupy me for the next week or so leading up to Christmas. I mean, didn't the Velveteen Rabbit -- one of my mom's favorite books to read me when I was little -- teach the valuable lesson that toys and games are meant to be played with?

My plan made sense. My logic was airtight. I made the ask. But somehow, in their undoubtedly limited perspective, my mom and dad said no. I couldn't believe they didn't see things my way, so I asked again. No. And again and again. No. And capital NO. I resorted to whining. My parents resorted to the ultimate threat: NO -- and if you ask again, we will take all your presents back and you won't get anything.

The truth is, for those few days, I don't think I talked to my parents about anything besides opening that pre-Christmas present. I was fixated on one mode of communication with them. Ask, ask, ask.

When I listen to myself and others pray, I think we fall into the same rut. We get fixated on asking God for things, and we ask, ask, ask. A lot of what we ask for is far more legitimate than my out-of-line request to open a present ahead of Christmas. The prayer might be for someone to be healed of cancer. Or delivered from addiction. Or to have her heart opened so she can see Jesus for how great he really is. Or for him to come back home to his wife and children. Or for more people to come to our church.

The problem isn't the asking. The problem is when asking is all we do. I'm pretty sure we drive God up the wall sometimes.

Anne Lamott has written a wonderful book in which she claims that the three most basic prayers are "help," "thanks," and "wow." I think we throw on "help" like a comfortable pair of jeans. We wear it until it becomes threadbare, while "thanks" and "wow" sit in the closet gathering dust.

Let's take a lesson from one of the Psalms. It has often been said that the Psalms are the Bible's prayer book. If you want to learn how to pray, read the Psalms. Every day. Maybe multiple times a day. This week in reading Psalm 86, I was struck at David's versatility while praying. He moves effortlessly between "help," "thanks," and "wow."

In order to illustrate the matter, I pasted and color coded Psalm 86 below. First the code and then the Psalm. May your prayers be multicolored like David's.

  • "Help" (green)
  • "Thanks" (blue)
  • "Wow!" (red)

Hear me, Lord, and answer me,
   for I am poor and needy.
Guard my life, for I am faithful to you;
   save your servant who trusts in you.

You are my God; have mercy on me, Lord,
   for I call to you all day long.
Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
   for I put my trust in you.

You, Lord, are forgiving and good,
   abounding in love to all who call to you.
Hear my prayer, Lord;
   listen to my cry for mercy.
When I am in distress, I call to you,
   because you answer me.

Among the gods there is none like you, Lord;
   no deeds can compare with yours.
All the nations you have made
   will come and worship before you, Lord;
   they will bring glory to your name.
For you are great and do marvelous deeds;
   you alone are God.

Teach me your way, Lord,
   that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
   that I may fear your name.
I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
   I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your love toward me;
   you have delivered me from the depths,
   from the realm of the dead.

Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God;
   ruthless people are trying to kill me—
   they have no regard for you.
But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
   slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and have mercy on me;
   show your strength in behalf of your servant;

save me, because I serve you
   just as my mother did.
Give me a sign of your goodness,
   that my enemies may see it and be put to shame,
   for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.


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