Summary: How wrong motives and wrong attitude leads us to misuse prayer
THE MISUSE OF PRAYER
Let me ask you a question: ‘Do you think it is possible to misuse prayer?’ I mean is it possible for us to pray in such a way that we are actually abusing the privilege which is ours through prayer? I think we misuse prayer far more often than we think or would like to think. This morning I want to touch on the two passages which we read and from them show you how we can misuse prayer.
THE PRAYER OF JABEZ
1 Chronicles 4.9-10 contains the prayer of Jabez. A few years ago a Christian author called Bruce Wilkinson wrote a book with that title and it became an instant best seller. Some of you may have even read it. When I read the book, and listened to Christians discuss it, I was immediately uneasy with it. The gist of the book was that we too could ask God to bless and enlarge our territory and that if we were righteous God would answer positively. Many people bought into the ‘health and wealth’ premise of the book without realising that was what they were doing. Let me explain why. The prayer itself is a classical Jewish prayer in which the presence and protection of God is desired and requested. Jabez’s prayer was in fact a direct response to God because of his name (‘I bore him in pain’). The context of the prayer is that his name meant one thing but he desired that under God his life would in fact be the opposite. The prayer of Jabez is in fact similar to us praying ‘lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’ when we pray the Lord’s Prayer.
Secondly I believe the context makes it clear that the prayer was specific to Jabez and not a general prayer (and promise) to all believers for all time. I think the reason a lot of Christians bought into the prayer of Jabez was a desire for blessing from God (nothing wrong with that) but that the methodology they applied was wrong – because the premise and the motive were both wrong. Let me explain a little further. I think that taking the prayer of Jabez and applying it as a general promise/prayer to all believers was actually to lift it out its context – as one of my lecturers use to say ‘a text taken out of context becomes a pretext.’ Meaning that it becomes the pretext for teaching something which it was never meant to teach. So how is this a misuse of prayer? Well, I believe we misuse prayer when we pray to ask God for His presence and blessing in order that our ‘territory might be extended.’ The motive is wrong. The motive is personal gain. I believe that praying the prayer of Jabez out of context is actually to misuse prayer because the motive is wrong. Listen to these words from James 4.3 and I Samuel 16.7. God told Samuel that it was a man’s heart that He examined when it came to anointing (blessing) him. According to James the purpose in asking and the purpose to which the answer will be put is of prime importance to God. In other words ‘What is my heart’s desiring in prayer?’ ‘Why is my heart desiring this in prayer?’ ‘To what purpose will I put it?’ Those are three very important questions to answer when we come to pray. They will, at the very least, flag up wrong motives in prayer and move us away from misusing prayer.
TWO MEN AT PRAYER – LUKE 18.9-14.
I think another misuse of prayer is revealed in this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Verses 9-10 set the scene and the context for the parable. In verse 9 the reason for the parable is revealed – ‘those who thought themselves righteous.’ We can misuse prayer if we use it as a means of displaying our piety before others. The scene is the Temple, a place of both public and private prayer. The danger in such a setting is to pray for the benefit of others and not to actually focus on God. Let us look at the rest of the parable and see what it teaches us about the misuse of prayer.
In verses 11-12 we have the prayer of the Pharisee. His prayer is summed up in the words of Jesus ‘he prayed about himself.’ There is the key to the misuse of prayer her – the focus was not on God but on himself. Friends I want you to listen carefully to what I am about to say here. Every word the Pharisee prayed about himself was true. His prayer was not unknown amongst the Pharisees – let me read to you a prayer from a Pharisee (IVP Commentary on Luke page 289). The Pharisee was a man dedicated to upholding and living by the teaching of the Law. In fact he went beyond the Law in both fasting and tithing. His prayer focused on what he abstained from and what he engaged in. The reality of his prayer was that it was a time spent contemplating himself and not engaging with God. He may have looked to God but he was actually focused on himself. There was no sense of sin, no sign of humility and he saw no need for the mercy or grace of God. His concern was not that God was present but who else was watching. He was more concerned with his status before men than his standing before God.