J. Marshall Jenkins

Author, Therapist, Spiritual Director

Praying for What You Want

Want something from God? It matters.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).

As a teen in the 70s, many times I heard these lyrics issue from my tinny clock radio: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz…”  Everyone who hears it still laughs.  Whatever our differences, we agree that prayer doesn’t work that way.

But we laugh too at ourselves.  The verse exposes an unexamined assumption.  We spend so much time and energy sniffing out the best quality products at the lowest prices, we expect good customer service from God.

So we might add another verse: “Oh, Lord, won’t you go earn an MBA…”  We wish God would more efficiently reduce costs and increase benefits.  Disappointed, we reject religion or participate nominally to appease a pious spouse.  Or we demote God to Manager of Heaven – an important job, but not when dealing with rough-and-tumble decisions on the ground like who to lay off or how to keep investors happy.

Our consumerist approach assumes we know what we want.  We don’t.  Taking cues from people we consider a little better than us, we decide that what they’ve got, we want.  We spend enormous energy and time on things we think we want, but don’t.  Often we don’t really know what to pray for.

If we break free and pray for the sick neighbor or the constipated Congress, we step around the consumerism problem and indeed move in a healthy direction.  Then we face another conundrum: Do we really believe God does things?  Do we want to believe God does things?  Wouldn’t we rather believe that the grand causal nexus scientists explore and technicians control crowds out God and wishful thinking?  That appeals to our sense of order and predictability.  It reduces the risk of disappointment when prayers go unanswered.

If the world revolves around us, we can let go of religion and laugh at all the prayers, the silly and the serious.  But if science teaches nothing else, it demonstrates that we do not occupy the center of the universe.

At his poetic and mystical best, Paul wrote,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

Knowing better than us what we want, the Spirit prays. God prays. God is not some clueless sales clerk who needs to be told three times what we’re looking for. When we offer up to God what we want, we join the Trinity’s conversation in progress. When we offer up our wish for healing and peace, we join a prayer already underway. God invites us to the conversation and actually lets us make a difference. We need only come as our true selves, humble, laying aside all frivolous wishes, ready to learn what we want.

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J. Marshall Jenkins

About J. Marshall Jenkins

J. Marshall Jenkins is an author, psychotherapist, teacher, and spiritual director. For several years he has been writing on the Beatitudes for people in emotional pain, publishing biweekly here on his Beatitudes Blog at http://www.jmarshalljenkins.com. His newest book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith and Hope with the Beatitudes, is now available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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2 Replies

  1. Michael Parnell

    I heard a preacher of old say this in a sermon, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” That is the true heart of the consumer mind.
    But to your larger point, John Polkinghorne, the theologian and physicist, says that he believes the role of prayer is that prays act to fill in gaps in what we call string theory. He says that prayers are join together in the great fabric of what God is doing in us, through us and in the world.
    The image of the bowls of incense that are the prayers of the saints given in Revelation comes to mind. Our prayers are part of God’s throne room and are part of God’s eternal work in us and the world.

    1. jmarshalljenkins.com

      Those are wonderful images, one from scientific theory, the other from scriptural narrative. Both call our attention to the fact that our prayers are more than they seem. Very importantly, they express our concerns about which God cares, but they also draw us into a divine conversation. The Christian mystical tradition includes beautiful visions of the Trinity as three divine Persons who are one in their loving interaction between each other and for us. This implies that the love we share between each other is going on in the heart of God, and when we pray, we participate in that love. That may not bring comfort when wounds are fresh and we want consolation now, but in the long run, we ground our hope in the promise that even our suffering is not wasted in God’s longsuffering redemption of us and all creation.

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