Towards A Theology of Prayer, Pt. 4: Why I Dont' Pray For "THINGS"

It's rare that I venture outside of Mark's story when it comes to the Gospel narratives but during a recent Life Group discussion, we were discussing a Lukan text (I felt like a foreigner reading Lk.). The text in view was one of the most famous sections in all of Scripture, Lk. 11.1-13. These verses, which share Matthean parallels (Mt. 6.9-13 & 7.7-11), have surely been dumbed down by many. In fact, to a great number of people, "The Lord's Prayer" in this section boils down to nothing but a ritualistic, week-in-week-out mantra. I think Jerome Neyrey is one scholar who does a good job in some of his work of reminding interpreters that these verses should be read in their socio-cultural contexts. While I don't agree with everything Neyrey says, his point is very well taken that reading these passages in their social contexts is extremely important.

For example, these words which are often relegated to a creed developed from "rote memorization" have more meaning to them than just "saying them aloud" week after week. I think for example of how Jesus' words "Thy Kingdom come..." were both socially and politically subversive! For Jesus to talk about another Kingdom, one which wasn't run by Caesar or Rome, was a sort of punch in the gut to them. To "hallow" anyone's name but Caesar's or to be asked to be delivered from the evil's created by a corrupt society was in a way, equivalent to Jesus putting His own head on the bounty.

Now, in Luke's story, this prayer seems to be coupled with a parable. In fact, the prayer makes a lot of sense in light of the story that is placed just after it. Before we go on, though, let me remind you real quickly of my definition of prayer: "Prayer is: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us." Picking back up, the story is about a man who is awoken in the middle of the night by a neighbor looking for bread. The neighbor just had a visitor show up at his home but had nothing to offer the visitor, so, shamelessly, he heads out into the night, knocks on his neighbor's door and begins asking for bread (on behalf of his visitor). In the story, the man whose door is being knocked on, grows frustrated. He doesn't want to get out of bed, he doesn't want to unlatch the door and he doesn't want to wake his family.

But Jesus says in this parable that the man with bread, because he didn't want to be shamed by the man who was asking, actually got up and provided the bread. Jesus then says: "Which of your fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

The last line of this paragraph has strengthened my view of prayer tremendously. In particular, it is one reason why I try to avoid praying and asking for "things". Yes, the text says "ask, seek and knock" but...what does it say to "ask, seek and knock" for? Well, according to Luke, we are encouraged to "ask, seek and knock" for the GIFT of the Holy Spirit. And this is SO important. Why? Because Christians in the West today are so used to being encouraged to pray for THINGS! But, this is not what the text says. In fact, it says the exact opposite. Jesus quips: Why would you want to pray for these measly things when you can pray for the Holy Spirit? In other words, no thing or things you could ask for even compare to the Holy Spirit, so, it's pretty much pointless to ask for them.

And this all makes a lot of sense to me! A few years back, a major shift in my theology of prayer took place (read some of my thoughts on that HERE, HERE and HERE). A big Aha! Moment for me was the realization that "asking, seeking and knocking" in prayer was not even about me but rather God. My thinking now is: When I "ask, seek and knock" in prayer, I'm asking about God's desires and wants, seeking God's desires and wants & knocking on the door to ask about and seek His desires and wants! Prayer is not about me. Prayer is not about you. Prayer is not about any of us and never has been! To USE prayer that way is to abuse it.

So, when I allowed Luke's theology to interact with what I had previously interalized up to that point, I felt incredibly affirmed and excited. It is great to know that when I "ask, seek and knock" after God's wants and desires (NOT MINE!!!), that one of His wants and desires is for me to have the Holy Spirit. Amazing! As I said HERE: "When we realize that prayer isn’t about us but rather about attending to God’s presence, asking Him His wants and desires, we also realize that prayer isn’t a means to an end."

I want to offer one last thought here: Many people are uncomfortable with such a view of prayer but the upside of this view is that it sees prayer as something both for and about God, not us. It is what I would call a "theocentric" view of prayer. For me personally, I tend to emphasize my gratefulness to God not for material things I have but for what He has done in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Thus, I don't do a lot of thanking God for something when I get it by saying "Thank You Lord". But, even greater than that, what I often do is express my gratefulness to God for what He has done in Christ and through the Spirit, by using what resources I do have, to His glory. You see, this is a totally different way of looking at and thinking about prayer!!! And while it may challenge the views of many, I am quite convinced that it is an incredibly healthy theology of prayer and that God is glorified by me much more this way than the other!!!


  1. Hi Michael, long time no read, but I'm glad I dropped in - this was a great series!! It helps me with some aspects of prayer I've been struggling with (the intercessory version of compassion fatigue), and ties in with conversations I've been having with a seeker friend.

    One question: I've seen a couple of theologians say something to the effect of "there are things God either won't or can't do unless we pray for it". Do you know what their Scriptural basis is for that statement?

  2. Wendy, soooo great to hear from you...hope you are doing well (let me know). Glad this series has been a help to you, hopefully I can get some more posts on it soon.

    RE your question, I surmise that the whole "God's movement requires our movement" sort of theology comes from passages such as James 4.2: "you have not because you ask not" or the "ask, seek, knock" passages I quoted in the post.

    I would also venture to say that many build faulty theologies of prayer around the phrase in Mk. and other gospels that says "whatever you ask the lord will give to you, etc. etc." and then conclude that the counter is: if you don't ask, you don't get.

    In my view, all of these views are unhealthy and have no basis. As I've tried to repeatedly stress: Prayer is not for us to get "things" it is for us to find out God's wants and desires; it is attending to the Spirit of God in us and around us so that we can learn His desires and make them our own.

    Does this help? Good to hear from you!