A Matter of Perspective

The late comedian Flip Wilson had a funny bit on prayer. “Hey, I’m talkin’ to God right now. Anyone want anything?”

This is how people tend to view prayer. You ask God for things you want and need, and you might even put together a list of things. And undoubtedly, the list will include not just things for yourself, but outcomes for loved ones you’d like to see. Sort of God as the big Amazon in the sky sort of thing. So, it’s no mystery why a common question about prayer is, “does prayer really work”? which usually means, do you really get what you ask for? Put another way, can we somehow get on God’s radar, get God to do something he wasn’t already going to do, or, perhaps, even change God’s mind?

But think about all this: if prayer is mostly about what we want, then prayer is mostly about bending God’s will to mine, getting God to do what we want. Then it’s more “my will be done” than it is “thy will be done.”

Right, “thy will be done.” God’s will be done. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that prayer is not about bending God’s will to ours. It is about learning to trust in God’s will and align our self with what God is up to. It’s learning to take on God’s perspective, and God’s perspective is love. Love for you – yes -but love for a whole bunch of other people, too. We see it at the very start of scripture in the garden that God is always seeking for life to flourish. Later in scripture it becomes more and more clear how inclusive and universal that scope is, when we learn over and over that God intends for life to be whole for those who are weak and the marginalized, the ones who get kicked to the corner in this world.

And yet, we do tend to pray for things according to how it benefits our own self. In the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” a character named Bruce, played by Jim Carrey, goes through a spiritual crisis and is tutored by God, played by Morgan Freeman. God even gives Bruce God’s powers for a week to learn about what it would be like to be God and see things from his perspective. Most of the movie involves Bruce using his new powers to benefit mainly himself and get everything he wants. In this scene, Bruce is using his God powers to set up the ultimate romantic evening with his girlfriend, Grace, and as a part of this, he even rearranges the heavens as part of his manipulation…

OK, things heat up from there, so we have to cut it off. During the course of the movie, though, it becomes clear that he’s not using his powers to love Grace and give her what she needs. He’s only thinking about what benefits himself. Grace picks up on his self-serving ways and eventually leaves him. He’s heartbroken, because he really does love her, but mostly he loves her for how she benefits him.
Eventually, though, after the school of hard knocks, Bruce comes to a realization of what God’s perspective is, what love really is, and what a good prayer looks like.

Did you get the shift in Bruce’s perspective? The point was no longer whether he got her back for himself, but whether she was happy.

So, how can you cultivate a prayer life that seeks to take on God’s point of view, which is always that our neighbor’s and family member’s lives will flourish – even the neighbors who are different from us, and distant from us? A prayer life that seeks God’s will be done, where all life on our planet will flourish, not just human life? That’s an increasingly relevant and very Christian question!

But here’s where prayer gets really rich and deep. Prayer is not just putting things in God’s lap and waiting for things to happen. When Jesus urges us to pray to God, “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” there is, first of all, an understanding that God’s kingdom will come in God’s time and in God’s way. This is more of a focus on the future. But these same words also carry a very strong present exhortation: namely, that we are called to participate in what God is doing, in this kingdom that is coming and is here; in the expression of love and hope that allows human lives to flourish. So, to pray for something that God wants in this world – a healthy planet, for instance -means that we not only trust God to do it, but we see ourselves as the hands and feet of God who is getting it done. That means we’ve got work to do!

Or, if we pray for our neighbor, we also ask, “what is my role in this, as I partner with God in caring for my neighbor?”

In the movie, Bruce finally was ready to do whatever was necessary to see to it that Grace would be happy and have what she needed.

In our current cultural climate, many have criticized leaders who offer their prayers for the victims of gun violence. The critique is founded in the idea that prayer is passive and results in no action on the part of the person who is praying. In the Lord’s Prayer, we don’t have that option. When we pray for God’s will to be done, we commit ourselves to seeing it done, participating with God in God’s kingdom, whenever and however we can. We pray for God’s forgiveness and we commit ourselves to forgive others as we have been forgiven. This is how prayer works.

Lastly, where are you and I, the ones praying, as we sit there with our perfectly normal lists of needs and wants for ourselves? Now, despite what I’ve said thus far, there’s nothing wrong with praying for what you need and even for what you want. Remember, Jesus asks us in the Lord’s Prayer to begin by praying to Abba, father. As we discussed two weeks ago, this word is often translated, “daddy.” So, there is a tenderness revealed to us about God’s nature through the person of Jesus. We know from the very beginning of the Lord’s Prayer that God loves each one of us and wants good things for us. This is explicitly affirmed in the Sermon on the Mount.

But God’s kingdom is much bigger than our imaginations. God’s will is for the well-being not just of one, but of all his children. So, learning to pray is learning to align ourselves with God’s will to love not just me but my neighbor, too. Even if there isn’t something in it for me! Because, let’s face it: often, we don’t get what we want or ask for, and it has nothing to do with God not caring or us not being a good Christian. It has to do with learning what really matters.

For instance, Moses, from the Bible – I think you’ve heard of him – Moses had to learn to live with the great disappointment of often not getting what he wanted, including making it to the promised land. When you read the many chapters in Exodus that cover Moses’ story of leading the Israelites to freedom and then living for 40 years in the wilderness, you learn a lot about his prayer life, his many conversations with God. Moses went from complaining about his shortcomings, to complaining about the shortcomings of his people, to learning how to be advocates for his people when he prayed to God. He was learning to love them! And Moses went from someone who was afraid to become a leader to someone who was a great leader because he learned to pray, to intentionally carve out time to talk to God and align himself with God. That is where his strength came from!

Even so, as punishment from God for losing control of his anger, Moses suffered the great disappointment of not seeing the promised land, right when the Israelites were ready to leave the wilderness. They were right there, ready to enter Palestine, when God told Moses he would not be among them.

Now, Moses could have felt angry with God and died an unfulfilled person, but it’s clear from the Bible that he died happy and fulfilled. Not only did his people, the Israelites finally make it there, but it seems that Moses increasingly developed a rich prayer life and found his greatest joy not from the things he asked for, but from spending time with God himself. This became Moses’ greatest desire: to be with God.

So, learning to pray for “God’s will to be done” is both an invitation to love others from God’s point of view, but also to spend time with God and learn to trust God and cherish that spiritual grounding. It’s about building a relationship! Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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