One of my sons has a motto by which he attempts to live his life. It is: “Never submit.” I can attest that he practices this maxim rigorously, and it serves him well in many situations, giving him grit and determination. But at the point that he cannot impose his demands upon people and situations, bending these to his liking (and he reaches this point routinely), then “Never Submit” leads to a dark and dangerous place.
Nevertheless, my boy is at least speaking the truth, as only youngsters can. And the truth reaches well beyond himself. This is precisely how many of us live. We are stubborn, obstinate, and pigheaded. We refuse to submit – not to authority, the rules, or a way of life that would make our days lighter, easier, and healthier – and not even to God. This shows up, most noticeably, when we pray.
Prayer, if you haven’t detected it for yourself, can be very self-centered. We approach God, not with a view of letting go of ourselves, to receive and live the life he has for us. We approach God with the mantra, “Never Submit.” Our prayers are scripturally-laced ransom letters, demanding the Almighty to do things our way; to meet us where we are; to comply with our plans.
Sure, prayer is a way of bringing our needs and requests to God, but sometimes, being human as we are, we can’t tell the difference between what we want and what we need. We mistake our preferences, as wholesome as these appear, for what we require. We cling to our personal agendas, and conveying these to God, require him to make us as comfortable as possible, comfort achieved as he yields to our wishes.
Such an attitude is not unlike the act of checking into a luxurious penthouse. We want something to eat, so room service is called and the kitchen goes into full operational mode to bring us whatever we want when we want it. Our favorite shirt is dirty. No problem, send for the maid. She will quickly take it to the laundry and return it before dinner.
Do you need a cab? Ring the bell; the concierge lives to serve you. Not enough clean towels? Want your bed made twice a day? Need an extra chocolate on your pillow at bedtime? It’s easy-peasy: Pick up the phone and the management will be happy to attend to your every whim and impulse.
Does prayer really work this way? I don’t think so. Prayer is not a method for getting everything we want. Rather, it is the means by which we surrender to what God wants. It is an act of submission; the letting go of our will, to be shaped by God’s will.
Really, what good is prayer if it isn’t changing the one who prays? Because if prayer only feeds our narcissism and the human tendency to self-aggrandize our egos, I seriously doubt that God is doing very much listening. Why would he? If all we want is a change of circumstances, be it in regards to our health, finances, job, church, spouse or a hundred other things, we miss the point that God seems more interested in changing us, rather than changing our surroundings.
I love the image painted by the great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones. He said, “Suppose you go fishing early one morning, and launch your little boat into the water. After a while, you are finished, and you wish to return home. What do you do?” He answers, “You throw a line to shore and begin to pull. Are you pulling the entire landmass to yourself, or are you being pulled to the shore?” The answer to his question is as enlightening as it is obvious.
Prayer is not pulling God to ourselves, to our will, or to our way of seeing and doing things. It is compliance to the will of God, as he pulls our lives in his direction. It is orienting our entire existence to his direction. It is submission, always.