We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. (1 Thessalonians 1:2)
In their attempts to curb selfishness in prayer, preachers sometimes urge believers to reduce the time spent making petitions for their own needs, but to increase the time spent in making petitions for others, that is, to devote more attention to intercessory prayer. Then, in their attempts to curb imbalance or a “taking” attitude with God, they sometimes urge believers to reduce the time spent making petitions altogether, but to increase the time spent in other aspects or forms of prayer, such as adoration, thanksgiving, confession, and so on. Both of these recommendations are misguided and destructive. This is because although the problems perceived are real, and present actual dangers, the solutions proposed are unbiblical, and go against the teachings and emphases of Scripture.
Throughout the Bible, God’s people are encouraged to make direct petitions to God, to make requests to him. The Father tells us to ask (Jeremiah 29:12), the Son tells us to ask (Matthew 7:7), Paul tells us to ask (Philippians 4:6), and James tells us to ask (James 4:2). The Bible does not tell us to stop making petitions or to make petitions for others as a prescription to cure selfishness in ourselves. We should address the selfishness itself, and not the legitimate practice of making petitions to God. There is in fact no necessary relationship between the two. A person who makes constant petitions might not be selfish at all, but his behavior might very well be an expression of his faith in God, that is, his confidence in divine power (that God is capable), and his dependence on divine grace (that God is willing). A reverent petition toward God does not spring from a wicked and fearful motive, but it is an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and goodness, that he is in control, and that he is merciful to bless, to help, and to deliver.
It is difficult to perceive a person’s motive merely by his external conduct. Some inferences are possible, especially if his words and actions reveal specific thoughts and dispositions of the heart. But the bare fact of constant petition does not imply a spiritual imbalance. It is what we should expect from someone who believes and follows God’s instructions.
We might not know the motive of someone who makes constant petitions to God, but we know for certain that there is something wrong with the person who does not do it, because he defies the teachings of Scripture. In addition, the nature of petition suggests several possible motives for the person who does not do it. Perhaps he is full of pride, or a self-sufficient attitude, and thinks that he can supply for his needs and solve his problems in his own way and by his own power. Perhaps he is full of unbelief, so that he does not believe that God answers prayer, and that making petitions to God is an unproductive use of his time and energy. Perhaps, for whatever reason, he is full of bitterness against God, so that he is reluctant to humble himself and submit his requests to God. If he prays for others and not for himself, this does not indicate selflessness, but the implication is that he thinks other people need God but he does not.
Likewise, it is legitimate to entertain a degree of suspicion regarding those who teach that we should de-emphasize petition for ourselves or that we should focus on making petitions for others instead of for ourselves. If this is what they teach, then this is probably their own attitude toward the prayer of petition. Unless they teach against an emphasis on petition but still do very much of it in private, in which case they are hypocrites, then they do not perceive the need and legitimacy of constant petition, and this is a failure to acknowledge biblical instructions on the subject.
Christians should be encouraged, even commanded, to make more petitions. If we are to take seriously biblical instructions on the subject, each individual should make more petitions for himself, and to be consistent and persistent in doing so. If motive is a problem, the solution is not to turn away from God or from what he commands, but look to him. So the solution to wrong motives and attitudes is not to discourage petitions in prayer, but to teach about these wrong motives and attitudes, and to petition for right motives and attitudes. The solution to the problems associated with petition is to make petition about these problems. That is, the problems with petitions are solved by making more petitions. It is God who grants the insight to perceive our own defects, then the desire to change, and the internal movement that produces the petition for a pure heart.
Then, there is a tendency to discourage prayer for material things, for things that pertain to our circumstances, our finances, our health, and so on, but to focus our effort on asking for spiritual blessings and advancements. The previous criticisms apply to this view as well, for it is as if the person acknowledges his need for God to supply his spiritual needs but not his material needs. Jesus, on the other hand, instructs his disciples to ask for their daily bread. He also says, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24). Therefore, my attitude is that I need God, now and every moment, and for everything. So I ask, and he hears, and he answers and blesses. His supply is not restricted by my petitions, or I would have very little. He gives more than I ask, since I am limited in what I can perceive, think, remember, and express even about my own needs and desires. But I should bring to him all the requests that come to mind, and all the needs and desires that I can recognize in my life.
Nevertheless, it is true that for many people prayer is equated with making petitions to God, often to the exclusion of other aspects of prayer, and this needs to be corrected. To make this correction, or to urge “balance” in prayer, several items or categories are sometimes introduced. They include adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and petition. Insofar as these are taught in Scripture, it is also appropriate for us to teach them. However, we should avoid prescribing rigid rules as to the order that these are to be performed and the proportion that each item is to occupy.
For example, there is the teaching that one must always come to God first by adoration. We can list at least three problems with this. First, the Bible itself does not teach this. There is no explicit teaching prescribing this, and just because some prayers in the Bible begin with adoration does not mean that all prayers in the Bible begin in such a manner, nor does it mean that ours should begin in this way. Second, there is the practical problem of deciding where one prayer ends and the next one begins. That is, if after spending some time in adoration during morning prayer I leave the room to get a glass of water, when I return to the room to pray, is it the same prayer session or a new one? If it is a new one, then I will have to start from adoration again. And if thirty seconds of absence does not break a prayer session, how about thirty minutes? If I wish to pray in the afternoon, do I need to begin from adoration again? Who decides? Where is this in the Bible? Third, this teaching that requires one to begin with adoration would eliminate a legitimate prayer like, “Lord, save me!” If the teaching is that prayers should usually begin with adoration, this is better, but short of a explicit statement from Scripture or a statistical tabulation from biblical examples plus a principle that permits us to make an enforceable inference from it, such a teaching would amount to nothing more than a suggestion.
Legalistic pronouncements, even when devised to counteract a genuine problem, causes bondage and destruction. Rather, let us just say that we should include adoration (or confession, or thanksgiving) in our prayers. But what will make us do it if we do not follow a prescribed order and schedule each time we pray? We will do it if we will develop inner qualities that would naturally express themselves in adoration, confession, and thanksgiving. These are produced by sound scriptural teachings and the continual work of the Spirit in our hearts.
So we may say that prayer should not consist of petitions alone. Perhaps it is better to say this from a positive angle, that is, there are reasons and purposes for prayer other than to make petitions. Rather than adding by force or in an artificial manner the things that are lacking, we can remind ourselves of various things about God and our great salvation that will naturally move us to pursue other forms and expressions of prayer. Rather than holding up an empty concept of adoration in prayer and then trying to conjure up things about God for which to adore him, we can remind ourselves of things about God that will naturally move us to voice our adoration to him. This is another way of saying that, if our lips draw close to God but our hearts are far from him, then our prayers are empty even if we think we have covered all the required items, in the correct order, and in the right proportions.
Thanksgiving is one other aspect of prayer. Paul does not begin his letter by saying that he makes requests to God for the Thessalonians. Surely they have their needs and problems, but these do not provide the only reason for Paul to talk to God about these believers. Rather, he first thanks God for them, for what they are already doing well, for the good things that God has already worked in them. Whatever good that is found in them, it is a work of God, so that Paul does not ask God to thank the Thessalonians for their much coveted endorsement of the gospel, but he thanks God for causing faith and holiness in them. A doctrine of human autonomy leaves room for only half-hearted thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving necessitates remembrance of divine grace, a calling to mind God’s faithfulness and generosity toward us. It requires single-minded gratitude, because it is difficult to sincerely and unreservedly thank God for things that you have, while you resent God for things that you do not have. Of course, a person’s motive is seldom perfect, and the act of thanksgiving could focus his thoughts upon the goodness of God even more, driving out any hidden unbelief and bitterness toward God.
Thanksgiving is an expression of a believing and regenerate heart. Reprobates do not give thanks to God (Romans 1:21). Although non-Christians sometimes exhibit gratitude, it is never directed to God, since by definition they do not believe in the true God, but they direct it toward either human beings or false gods, which consist of demons or imagined entities. So when a non-Christian thinks that something good has happened, if he exhibits gratitude about it, it is directed to a human, a demon, or a delusion instead of the true God.
This means that whenever a non-Christian exhibits gratitude, he gives the credit for something good (or that he perceives as good) to a creature – at times even to the devil – rather than to the Creator. This in turn means that whenever a non-Christian exhibits gratitude, he is demonstrating his lack of gratitude toward the true source of all goodness and the one who deserves all gratitude. Every time he shows gratitude to another, he is rubbing his lack of gratitude in God’s face.
Therefore, whenever a non-Christian expresses gratitude (he never thanks the true God, or he would not be a non-Christian), he mocks and spites God, and thus sins against him. In non-Christians, gratitude is deliberate exclusion and derision of the Creator as sinful creatures show appreciation for one another instead. Non-Christian gratitude is a manifestation of rebellion. It is pure evil in demonstration. Of course, not giving thanks to anyone at all is also sinful, since it remains that no gratitude is expressed to the true God. Non-Christians can do nothing good. All their thoughts, words, and actions are wicked all the time.