Thursday, April 12, 2012

God Needs No Advice

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. (Matthew 6.7-8)

As Crazy as Crazy Gets

In “People’s Parties,” her classic song about L.A. social life, Joni Mitchell describes the gallery of show-biz types at these affairs: “Some are friendly, some are cutting, some are watching it from the wings. Some are standing in the center, giving to get something.” We need never have been to a Beverly Hills get-together to picture what she describes. That’s the way every party goes—from weekend barbecues to wedding receptions. Indeed, that’s pretty much the way of community life in general. Whatever brings us together, each of us enters the occasion from a perspective that shapes our behavior once we’re there. Some of us come for friendship; we drop our guards to welcome people into our lives. Some of us hope to leave feeling better about who we are; so we spend our time comparing ourselves favorably to others. Some of us don’t want much of anything; we’re just there for the show. Still others of us take our position, “standing in the center, giving to get something.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer lately, and it occurs to me that Mitchell may as well be describing various ways we approach our encounters with God. And it seems that, over the course of time, we assume all the roles in the song. Sometimes we use prayer to deepen our friendship with our Maker. Sometimes we turn visits with God into opportunities to criticize others, vent our cynicism, and complain about feeling underappreciated and unloved. Sometimes we don’t have much to say about anything; we’re just there to be there, “watching it from the wings.” Then there are times when we assume we’re the center of God’s universe. We plant ourselves in the middle of everything, believing it all revolves around us. That’s when the bargaining with God begins. “If You do this for me,” we pray, “I promise to do that for You.” What are we thinking? Seen objectively, our giving-to-get-something strategy is about as crazy as crazy gets. Yet we do it. We do it all the time.

Limiting God

Of course, the folly of bargaining with God is revealed in our presumption to know better than God what’s best for us. Our hubris to imagine we can advise God how to work on our behalf would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. Any time we try to make a deal with God, we paint a broad stripe of desperation down the backs of our prayers. We confess we’ve placed all of our hope on a specific outcome, rather than in a God whose power and wisdom exceed comprehension. We essentially push God out of the picture, limiting God to what we believe must be done, rather than availing ourselves to what God wants to do—what God can do. Ephesians 3.20 says that when we put our expectations on hold and permit God’s power to work within us, God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” So why would we ever confine ourselves to reasoning and imagination when we pray? Why would we ever present our requests in terms of what we want, when God knows what we need? How could we possibly conceive God needs our advice? What causes us to think offering to do what God wants will persuade God to do what we want? How silly is that?

Just before giving us the perfect-prayer model—which pivots on the phrase, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—Jesus says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Matthew 6.7-8) Those “empty phrases” and “many words” He mentions are indicative of a prayer style common to all ancient peoples—a labored quid pro quo approach that views prayer as a contractual negotiation with divine powers. When the ancients prayed to their gods, they laid out elaborate pledges of loyalty, worship, and sacrifice in exchange for favor. Make it rain, and we’ll build you a beautiful temple. Help us conquer our enemies and we’ll force them to worship you. Give us lots of children and we’ll place a shrine to you in our homes. Inherent in all of their prayers was an underlying attitude toward the gods that said, “Do us a favor and we’ll do one for you.” Jesus tells us we can spare all of this bother by accepting one basic truth: God knows what we need before we ask.


What’s more, we know what God doesn’t need before we pray. God needs no advice from us. God needs no promises. God needs no contractual quid pro quo. All God asks of us is total trust. There’s no giving-to-get-something on either side. The faithful prayer seeks agreement with God’s will and purpose. It says, “God, whatever You’re doing in me, I’m right here beside You, waiting to see Your plan happen.” This is why we fold our hands, lift our arms, bow our heads, close our eyes, kneel, and take various other postures in prayer—to signify our surrender to God. Faithful, trusting prayer rests in complete confidence that God’s power is already at work in us, accomplishing more than we can ask or imagine. And realizing that, we’re free to trust God all the more.

Bargaining with God isn’t just silly. It’s unnecessary—a waste of time. It’s unnecessary to tell God, “If You heal those who reject and misuse me, I’ll honor Your purpose in my life.” Or, “If You provide for me, I’ll worship You by giving back to You.” Or, “If You lead Me to happiness and peace, I’ll work for justice and harmony in Your world.” God knows what we need and knows how to meet our needs in ways that bring about greater things—unimaginably wondrous things—in us. So we should forsake the party approach to prayer, vacating that center spot of giving to get something, and move toward the reality of what prayer is: faithful participation with God that brings God’s kingdom about in the world and activates God’s will in our lives. Our daily bread, God's forgiveness, the ability to forgive others, rescue from trials and temptations, and everything else we need come to us when we forgo telling God what to do so God can do as God wills.

Prayer is not a quid pro quo negotiation between God and us. It’s faithful participation with God, based on total trust in God’s will and purpose in our lives.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Good for Nothing

Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. (Matthew 6.2)

The Good Life

Walt and a group of friends were discussing various life philosophies, and one of them said, “Mine is simple. I try to be good for nothing.” Eyebrows shot up and heads tilted. He explained that he looks for opportunities to do something good without anyone knowing it. “I want to leave things better for the next guy,” he said. “I pick up litter when I see it. I give a little extra to homeless people—not so much for them as for someone who might not have it to give. If I see an open gate, I close it, because people lose pets that way.” Someone in the group likened it to the “pay it forward” concept. “Not really,” he said. “There’s no payment back or forward. It’s all for nothing.” So they’re just random acts of kindness? “It’s not random at all,” he countered. “I go looking for ways I can be good for nothing.”

Ever since Walt brought the idea home, we’ve talked about what a liberating notion it is—to do good with no strings attached, no names, no plans, no credit, none of that awkward business of being thanked or praised for thoughtfulness that springs out of one’s heart. To be good for nothing. Living lives of kindness in motion. Leaving jet streams of compassion and generosity and harm prevention wherever we go without any indication of where they came from. And to make that our purpose, going beyond the odd moments when it dawns on us to do what’s good, kind, and just. To go looking for ways we can be good for nothing. This is precisely the life Jesus calls for in Matthew 6.2: “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” This is the life in which goodness is its own reward, the life of goodness that seeks no reward. This is the good life.

The Discipline of Being Good

The more I think about this simple plan for living the good life the more I wonder how the discipline of being good for nothing plays out in relationships and situations where we’re inescapably present and known. How do we practice drive-by goodness there? Jesus shows us how in His admonition about what not to do. “Do nothing to draw attention to yourself,” He says. “Don’t get all holy and self-righteous about goodness you convey.” Doing what’s good to prove we’re as good—or, more often, better—than those who benefit from it proves nothing. Their gratitude and onlookers’ praise become the prize. If that’s all we want—to be seen doing good—we won’t be disappointed, because that’s what we’ll get. But in going that way, we should also be aware that’s all we’ll get. Jesus promises something much greater than looking good will come of our goodness when we divorce it from any hopes or intentions of being noticed. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you.” (v3-4) Many translations attach “openly” to the end of verse 4, underscoring the implication that being good for nothing ultimately results in rewards that openly attest to goodness in us—goodness that need not wave flags and sound trumpets, goodness that is simply, irrevocably, obviously there.

This is a hugely important lesson for all of us. And it’s especially vital for those of us who’ve been disparaged as “good for nothing.” Learning Jesus’s way of being good for nothing restores and reaffirms our dignity and worth. When kindness in motion becomes a way of life, it transforms every situation into a good-for-nothing opportunity. Jet streams of compassion, generosity, and harm prevention smoke out the hornet’s nests and purify atmospheres of hatred and degradation. Seeking no reward for good relieves the burden of hoping our intentions will be appreciated. Others’ responses don’t affect our decision to do good, because we do it for nothing. If they get it, that’s great. If they don’t, so be it.

For the Better

As we listen to Jesus talk about doing good for nothing, we bear in mind He’s addressing a culture of disempowerment, speaking to an oppressed people who’ve lapsed into a perpetual reactionary state. In many ways, His listeners resemble post-traumatic patients. They’ve witnessed, experienced, and absorbed so much suffering that they’re naturally reluctant to extend themselves to others without some guarantee of repayment. They’ve already lost so much that asking what’s in it for me is their first line of defense against future losses and greater suffering. And so it is with us. We too live in a culture of disempowerment, where belittlement and demoralization are handy tools for anyone seeking to control who we are, how we behave, and what we believe. Before we do anything good, we’re apt to weigh potential risks and rewards. When we’re unsure that doing good will result in something better for us, we hesitate.

Given the suffering we’ve endured and absorbed, we have no reason to condemn ourselves for thinking that way. Yet Jesus challenges us to think again—to realize abuses that befall us grow out of a climate starved for goodness, a world where oppression, demoralization, and hatred are clothed as moral and religious righteousness. “What’s in it for me” strips the good from goodness and replaces it with hypocrisy and deceit. Whatever we may reap from rewards-based goodness benefits no one—not even us—because all we’re doing is counterbalancing evil with good, rather than increasing goodness by foregoing any desire of repayment. To be good for nothing is to participate in an additive process that fills the gaping void of goodness in our world. It changes our relationships, situations, culture, climate, and, yes, us for the better. This is goodness that God rewards. This is the good life. So the next time anyone dares to say you’re good for nothing, dare to smile, nod in agreement, and thank them for the compliment!

Doing good without seeking reward invites us to participate in an additive process that fills the gaping void of goodness in our world.