I have a friend who throws books — at the wall. He only throws religious books, and particularly books on prayer with outrageously selfish theology. Books tossed in disgust might have encouraged readers to “direct God’s attention to the point of your greatest need.” Or a book will end up thudding on the floor for suggesting that you should “remind God of your requests, for God seems to act when His memory is jogged.”
This is silly, flawed thinking. It’s hard to jog the memory of an all-knowing being. God may be known as the Ancient of Days, but the Divine is not getting senile.
Still, the question “Is it okay to ask God for material things?” can leave us scratching our heads. On the one hand, there are numerous biblical admonitions suggesting that we should ask, extensively. Paul writes, “Do not be anxious, but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6).
Jesus seems to confirm this in the prayer he taught us to say: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). That seems clear enough.
Yet what’s confusing is that three verses earlier, Jesus hints that we don’t need to ask — especially not for material things. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).
Prosperity theology is a popular force in today’s religious culture. The purveyors of this gospel tell us we ought to pray for wealth, health and success. They can recite the scriptures above, and more: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives. . . . Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” (Luke 11:9-11). So we’re instructed to ask — especially for material blessings.
But there is a shallowness to this spirituality that is surely in danger of Divine judgment and condemnation. Granted, God sees us as precious children, and like any parent, the Holy One wants the best for us. Yet as beloved children, we are expected to mature. Like Jesus, we are to grow in our relationship with the Holy so that our lives reach for higher and higher things — of the Spirit, the Heavenly, the Holy. It’s called discipleship — learning to become like Jesus.
What the advocates of a prosperity gospel fail to note is that Jesus’ advice to “Ask . . . seek . . . knock” was not about more materialism but deeper spirituality. He concludes, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).
I am convinced that God does want us to express all of our needs in prayer. However, I am also convinced that as our intimacy with God grows, a trust and contentment with our personal surroundings and financial status will also grow. We will need less and less materially, but yearn for more and more spiritually.
Remember my book-tossing colleague? He has done extended periods of ministry in destitute situations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. At one point, he spent three months living with heroin addicts in recovery houses throughout Europe. The salvation they prayed for took many forms: physical respite from addiction, emotional reconciliation with family and friends who had long given up, and spiritual reunion with the God beyond them. They prayed for miracles, and in many cases, their prayers were answered. God showed up. Something unexpected, unexplainable happened. Miraculous. Supernatural.
There are many people for whom praying for material things is justified. Just to have a stable job, food for the family or shoes and cough syrup for a child — God wants to hear those prayers.
Yet for a lot of us in Canada, praying from our situations of stability and affluence, asking God for material things is seeking far too low on the Divine scale of blessings. Rather, as we gain spiritual maturity, we ought to set our focus on more of God’s living presence and power to be active in our lives. We pray for a link with the Holy One that allows all that the Divine spirit dreams and desires for us — even the unexpected, the unexplained, the supernatural.
Would that our asking prayers lead to a Power beyond all expectation, bursting forth from our lives and our church, to transform lives and the culture around us. Let our highest asking prayer be, “Come, Holy Spirit.”
Rev. Orville James is a minister at Wellington Square United in Burlington, Ont.
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