The Selfishness of Prayer

I’ve lately been struck by short, little-regarded Psalm 67. It begins with a classic, generic prayer:

May God be gracious to us and bless us

And make his face shine upon us.

All the basics are there: a longing for God’s gracious forgiveness, for his blessing, and for a sense of his shining, personal presence. That’s what I pray for when I don’t know what to pray, when I’m lonely or discouraged or confused. “God bless us.”

I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering what right I have to pray that way, me out of all the needy people on the face of the earth. We are naturally selfish when we pray, as this psalm shows: “be gracious to US and bless US and shine upon US.” We pray for others but we pray most fervently and spontaneously for ourselves. I may pray for your children, but not as much as I pray for mine.

What makes the psalm so magnificent is what comes next:

“So that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.”

The Israelites were not particularly famous for thinking of other tribes. They were a tiny nation surrounded by enemies, and their thinking more often went: “God bless us and defeat our enemies.” In this psalm, however, another view leaks out. “Bless us so that our enemies will see and know what kind of God you are—gracious and full of blessing.”

The prayer goes on:

“May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad, and sing for joy…..”

Not content that the surrounding nations observe God’s goodness to Israel, the psalmist asks that the nations come to praise; furthermore, that all the nations be glad and sing for joy. The picture is of blessing spreading to the ends of the earth, leading to praise and delight in God’s good and just reign. The blessing will fill the whole world. They will sing for joy together.

This vision is not new to the psalmist; God’s call to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) contains the same dynamic, blessed to be a blessing. But Psalm 67 is our plea, not God’s proclamation, and it helps redeem the selfishness of prayer. We ask God to bless us, but that is just the beginning. Through blessing us, we pray, God can show himself to others—and so ultimately they will sing for joy, matching our songs in a chorus throughout the universe.

In India I saw this worked out in practical ways. I interviewed many new Indian Christians, mostly poor. Many had come to Christ when they prayed for healing, and saw results. Many had gained life-changing help in the form of good schools planted in their village. In various ways they had experienced God’s goodness, and their neighbors saw. That led to the spread of faith. One reason that Christianity is growing rapidly in India is that faith in Jesus improves people’s lives. It’s visible. Beginning with selfishness–bless US– it leads to the breakdown of selfish barriers as more and more tribes and peoples join in.

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One Response to “The Selfishness of Prayer”

  1. Tweets that mention The Selfishness of Prayer « Timstafford's Blog -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Vander Klay and Craig L. Adams, Chris Callanan. Chris Callanan said: RT @PaulVanderKlay: Tim Stafford: the Selfishness of prayer […]

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