After a busy couple of weeks I've got back to reading Brian McLaren's recent book, Naked Spirituality, which is all about living and interacting with God (the book's subtitle is 'A life with God in twelve simple words'). And once again, McLaren has really hit the spot for me. The chapter called 'Help!' is about admitting to God that we need his help and asking him to make things better. But we can cry out to God for help in more or less mature ways. Here are what McLaren gives as some immature 'help!' prayers:
I'm running late, most often due to bad planning on my part, and I petition God for good traffic or a close-in parking space.
My wife is angry or disappointed with me about something, so I pray that God will change her heart – that way, I won't have to deal with whatever it is in me that's bothering her.
I'm afraid to confront an interpersonal problem, so I pray that God will solve it for me.
I've said yes to too many things, so I ask God for extra strength to accomplish all of them.
McLaren writes that this sort of praying reduces God to our personal assistant; we're asking God to 'adjust and remake the universe for our convenience and benefit'. For sure, we all pray this way a lot of the time, and surely God hears these requests and even grants some of them. But how about we pray in a more mature way that doesn't simply ask God to fix things for us?
Lord, I'm running late again, and once again, it's because I thought I could get just two or three extra things done. Please, Lord, help me develop wisdom so that I won't be so prone to tackle too much in too short a time. And when I walk into the meeting late, help me not make any excuses but take full responsibility for inconveniencing my colleagues.
Lord, my wife is upset with me. Please help me to understand what's bothering her and to respond with compassion and love. And please help me learn to anticipate and meet her needs rather than frustrate her, as I so often do.
Lord, I have a problem with Sam. I need to speak frankly with him about it. Please help me to tell the truth, and not hold back, but help me to do it cleanly, without bitterness or hurt.
Lord, Once again I've taken on too much. Now I'm exhausted. Help me, Lord, to remember that you are the God who created Sabbath, that you want me to live a life that balances good work with adequate rest. Please liberate me from the fears and insecurities that are like a slave-driver, always demanding more of me, never letting me say “no, I can't”. Help me to settle into the healthy rhythm that you set for me, for your yoke is easy and your burden is light.
This is how McLaren sums up the difference between these two kinds of prayer:
Immature petition tries to convince God to remake the world in our image for our convenience and ease, but mature petition asks God to remake us in God's own image so that we can expand our capacity to respond to the world as it is.
At the heart of this is the idea that God doesn't simply want to make things easier for us. Instead he wants us to willingly submit to him and allow him to turn us into people of strong, holy character. Here are a few well-known Bible passages on this theme:
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (Romans 5:3-5)
That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:2-4)