Prayer and the Christmas Catalog

Source: Todd Lappin via Flickr
Source: Todd Lappin via Flickr

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request. 1 Chronicles 4:10 (NIV)

When I was a child, the annual arrival of the Sears Christmas catalog was a big deal. The giant selection of toys at the back of the catalog was poured over countless times. By early December the catalog was looking worn and dog eared from the constant flipping of pages. Many items got circled so I would remember to transpose them to my letter to St. Nick. My list for Santa contained a long list of the coolest looking toys, sports equipment and gadgets that a little boy could ask for.

There is a certain brand of Christians to whom I refer as the “Name it and Claim it Crew.” Made up mostly of televangelists and their ilk, this brand of believers approach God much like the giant lottery in the sky. Their teaching is focused on getting in on all the material blessings that God is dishing out much like Santa Claus, or perhaps more like Drew Carey on The Price is Right. If you listen long enough, you’ll hear the message subtly shift at some point into a spiritual ponzi scheme with the preacher taking on the mantel God’s investment broker: “You sacrificially send me and my ministry $100 and God will bless you with $1000 or more.”

Many years ago, there was a book that came out about the prayer of Jabez. We read Jabez’s prayer in today’s chapter. I’ve pasted it above. It’s a small nugget slipped into the seemingly endless genealogical lists we’re wading through in the book of Chronicles. The Prayer of Jabez made the bestseller list and I remember a period of time when the prayer was all the rage. At the time, I remember a lot of people approaching the prayer like some sort of magic incantation that eerily reminded me of The Name it and Claim it Crew.

Just yesterday in worship Wendy and I heard a message about praying powerful prayers. It prompted a conversation between us on the way home and continued while we prepared lunch. The reality is that we don’t always get what we pray for any more than a child gets every item on his Christmas wish list. Faith is not a game show or a lottery. God is not Santa Claus. What we wish for, what we need, and God’s ultimate purposes and provision can become a confusing menagerie.

I don’t believe that asking God for safety, favor, and blessing is wrong. I do it all the time. I even admit to regularly offering a loose facsimile of Jabez’s prayer in my on-going conversations with God. I am constantly, however, checking the motives of my own heart. In my mind, approaching God like some sort of material vending machine is to reduce Him into a lucky charm or one of the pagan idols He gets so worked up about. Doing so ends with me feeling like a bitter child, angry at Santa for not contractually delivering everything on the list and wondering which of my behavioral infractions kept me from getting that cool chemistry set.

Prayers and God’s purposes are so much deeper than a childish give-and-take. Paul wrote that when he was a child he spoke and acted like a child, but when he became a man he gave up childish things. I’m thinking this morning about the ways I slip into a “child at Christmas” thinking in my prayers and expectations of God. I confess that I do it more than I care to admit. Today, God and I are going to have a chat about that.

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