Having been a high school teacher for 17 years and a soccer coach for 27, I’ve heard many people discuss prayer, not so much in a theoretical sense but in a practical sense. I’ve heard innumerable students ask for prayer on test days when during the rest of the week no such cry was heard. Their requests for prayer increased when projects were due or homework was especially difficult or overwhelming. The story was no different for the athletic teams that I coached, only it had to do with injuries or game results and this time, the parents got involved. Sometimes, however, on rare occasions requests were made for more altruistic purposes such as presenting themselves as a good witness or for the general safety of the players, but on the whole, people asked God to bless the petitioner in some way for their own benefit. While I’m not saying such prayers are wrong, I have always wondered if they might be misguided.
I remember hearing a story of a pastor who had been asked to pray for someone’s sickness to which they replied with the simple question, “why?” Understandably, the one asking for prayer was taken aback as the reason seemed obvious: they were sick and they needed healing. But, the pastor explained, that that wasn’t enough: merely being sick and asking to be healed is not completely consistent with scripture, the pastor said. Now I’m sure somewhere in the conversation the petitioner made reference to James 5:13-17 where we are told to call on the elders of the church if we are sick and the prayer of faith will make us whole. Even so, I think the pastor knew there is another side to prayer, a side which comes out in Psalm 67 where the psalmist begins by asking for God’s blessing:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us (Psalm 67:1)
Even in the larger world outside of my former classroom and the soccer field, it seems fair to say that we are told we should pray to God for whatever we want and he will grant us the desires of our heart: if we only ask in faith. But I wonder if it is somehow wrong, or at the very least selfish, to pray for God’s blessing on our lives and for him to remove our hurts and pains.
Honestly? I don’t know.
I do know it is interesting that the psalmist follows up his request for blessing with an explanation of why he wants to be blessed:
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations. (Psalm 67:2)
In light these words, I think it might be worthwhile to consider the reason we ask for God’s with difficult tasks or for his healing. As I think on this question, I am reminded of a note my father had written shortly before he passed away in 1990. It reads as follows:
I will keep you posted on my progress. Keep on praying, with thanksgiving. I have had a good opportunity to evaluate what my motive is. There is no fear of death. It looks like a great opportunity to gain an early entrance into the presence of the Lord. On the other hand, what advantage would it be to have another 15-30 years of life if it would result in business as usual. I am asking the Lord to heal but also that he give me a ministry that would make the healing profitable. If not – I’m ready to go.
I keep a copy of this note in my prayer journal all the time and often open it to remind myself that prayer has a greater purpose than merely placating my pains. According to the psalmist, we should seek God’s blessing so that his way would be known upon the earth and among the nations. I realize this seems like such a basic thing, but the basic things are often the most difficult to live out.
I find it’s easy to ask for God’s healing when sick and injured; it’s easy to ask for God’s strength when overwhelmed and oppressed; it’s easy to ask for God’s blessing when in need. These are easy prayers to pray, but what if the sickness, injury, or overwhelming circumstances are the very things God designed and placed into our lives so that his ways would be better known to others on earth? How should we pray then? It’s impossible to know whether God’s plan is to remove my trials and give to me a blessed life. But I think it’s clear that our prayers for healing and blessing should be rooted in the motivation that God would establish his kingdom and spread his saving power among the nations.
Why then should we pray for God’s blessing? The psalmist answers this question in the last line of Psalm 67,
let all the ends of the earth fear him! (Psalm 67:7)
I wonder how many of us are brave enough to make that our only prayer.