One of the most suspenseful features of a mystery novel is not just figuring out “who-done-it,” but why that person would have done it in the first place. As you hang on every page and search for clues, you scrutinize each scene and wonder why they made certain statements, why they were talking to that person, why they were seen leaving a certain place, and so on. It is mental gymnastics trying to figure out some of the clues, but when the author explain all the clues to your cliffhangers, you feel such relief and satisfaction. Finally, the whole book makes sense as you comb through your memories of how the drama unfolded.
However, one overlooked aspect in the drama of our Christian life is often our motivation for doing things. This can be true of our actions, but my focus for today will be on our motivations in prayer. Our prayer closet is often the place where we reveal ourselves most fully as we make our requests and deepest desires made known to God. Since our daily actions and attitudes spring from our time with God in prayer and devotional Bible reading, it only makes sense to begin here. You could say its the first “domino” of your day.
Many Christians realize that asking God for anything through prayer must be done by faith. When we realize our need of His wisdom, we can receive grace in order to sustain us through the trials of life.
While we understand that our heart must be filled with faith, we must also examine our heart to ensure that it is not influenced by the wrong motivation. We know that doubt will quench our faith in God, but did you know that a wrong motivation in prayer will also stop God’s attempt to answer our prayer?
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. – James 4:3
God acknowledges that we have come to Him in prayer, perhaps even believing that God can and will grant us our petition. However, this verse states that it is possible to ask for something for the wrong reasons. The phrase “ask amiss” means that we have asked God for something in a faulty manner. In this case, the faulty manner could be that our heart is not right with God and we ask in the wrong spirit. We are not the first ones to experience this problem: “And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God (Psalm 78:8).” When our lives reflect disobedience, we indicate through our actions that our heart is not aright nor our spirit in step with God. It demonstrates our selfish desires, yet prayer is intended to be unselfish. Even when we pray for ourselves, the goal is to glorify God in the answer. This is a pure motivation that also serves as a filter to help validate our request for our needs.
Therefore, there is a possibility that our prayers are simply acts designed to satisfy our personal pleasure rather than to be used for the glory of God. God wants to give us our request, but not for selfish reasons.
Let’s look at one example from the Word of God. In Matthew 20:20, the Bible tells us that the mother of two of Christ’s apostles, James and John, came to Jesus “desiring a certain thing of him.” The Lord listened to the mother’s request as she stated that she would like for Jesus to grant permission for her sons to sit on each side of His throne when the Lord would reign as King. Jesus replied, “ye know not what ye ask.” Jesus would not grant such a request because it was done for all the wrong reasons. While the mother was sincere in her petition and clearly believed that He would be able to grant such a request, the answer she desired would only benefit her sons, and would not glorify God. The petition was asked out of love for self rather than out of love for the Saviour. Additionally, it was a request that went against the teachings of Jesus Himself. As He continued His response, He reminded the disciples that those who would be the greatest among them would be those who humbled themselves as ministers and servants (Matthew 20:27-28). Having great authority over men was of little value in the eyes of Jesus. Even though Jesus had all authority over all things (Matthew 28:18), He took this opportunity to demonstrate once again that He Himself was a minister sent to give His life a ransom for many. The mother’s request for her sons to receive commendation, position, and favor was not in keeping with the spirit and teachings of the Lord.
Like you, when I pray I want a response to my prayers. I desire to receive the “something” that I’m asking for – words to share with a friend who is hurting, the knowledge I need to lead and manage projects at the office, the strength to help out around the house, the right attitude when faced with frustrating situations, and many (very many) more things I need throughout the day. What can I do to ensure that I get all those “somethings” that I need from God? Is it possible to filter my motivations to ensure that align with the heart of God? Fortunately, God’s word explains how I can be sure that my heart is aright and my spirit is stedfast with God:
Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my meditation. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray. My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up. For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee. – Psalm 5:1-4
In this text, there are three basic aspects to David’s prayer: God’s assurance, our attitude, and God’s answer. God promises to answer our prayers when we practice these three attitudes in our lives. Psalm 5:3-4 captures the aspects of reverently approaching God as the King, looking “up” by faith, and abstaining from the wickedness which He abhors.
Let’s really dig out this truth. Here are some examples of some in the Bible whose experiences reveal God’s response to improper and proper motives in prayer:
1. Saul – I Samuel 14:37; 28:6
a. Reason: Saul was disobedient – I Samuel 15:18-19
b. Reason: Saul was selfish by wanting to look good before the people – I Samuel 15:30
c. Reason: Saul’s pride caused him to reject God’s word – I Samuel 15:16, 23, 26
d. Result: God did not answer his prayer
2. Ezra – 8:21-23
a. Reason: To seek direction from God
b. Reason: To determine the right action to take
c. Result: “He was intreated of us”
3. Moses – Deuteronomy 9:9-19
a. Reason: To receive a message from God
b. Reason: Because of great sorrow over sin
c. Result: “…the Lord hearkened…”
4. Esther – 4:16
a. Reason: Because she was facing death
b. Reason: Because God’s people were facing extinction
c. Result: God gave the victory
From these examples, we can see that the ultimate purpose of prayer is so God can be glorified in the answer. As in the example of Saul, selfishness will ensure that you are left without any grace or guidance from God. However, the other examples established the principle that it is completely acceptable (and expected) for Christians to pray for themselves or for things that will benefit them as long as the motivation is correct (Matthew 6:11). Of course, how and when God answers that prayer is still determined by His own desires, but per this text you can be assured that He WILL answer.
Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon Christian to examine the motivations of their prayers. Are there times when the things we seek in prayer are more for our personal benefit than for the glory of God? Do we pray for appointment to leadership positions so we can receive honor, or do we seek things to further the cause of Christ? Our motivation in prayer is very important. If we are only motivated by selfishness, our petition will be denied and rejected. However, we will receive whatsoever we ask of God when we are motivated by a desire to see God glorified. Check your motivations at the door of your prayer closet. Be sure that your heart and spirit are set aright and stedfast with the Lord!