Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. This means, among other things, that I’ve already seen and sent a few emails regarding Christmas lists. Family and friends are already asking us what we’re asking for this Christmas, and we’re asking them the same question in return. This means that on the day when we give thanks for what we do have, we’re all already thinking about what we don’t have, what we’d rather have, what we want.
Compiling a Christmas list has a strange effect on me, forcing me to answer the question what do I actually want? Each year I find the question harder to answer. What I really want in life aren’t things that can be put on a simple holiday shopping list. I have my frequently updated wish-list of books, but to go beyond books, compiling a Christmas list requires a whole new level of deliberate work: What do I want? Why do I want that? Will I actually use that? What do I really need?
A few years ago, a friend told me she had received a word from God for me. The message was simple: “Just ask.” I have a note about that encounter in my journal to the effect of “Ok. Thank you God for this word. What am I supposed to ask You for?” I never heard a specific answer, but the memory has promoted me several times to be more intentional about asking for things from God. Today I’m wondering, What would my prayer life look like if I put as much thought into my requests of God as I’m putting into my Christmas list?
That’s a convicting question because it first clarifies my intentions. Today’s daily lectionary reading gives both an encouragement to ask freely, but also a caveat regarding our motives: “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3 NIV). Even with something as tempting as Christmas gifts, I have enough sense to ask myself about my motives: Why do I want that? What will be the result if I get it? Why not also ask ourselves these things about our petitions of God? Doing this forces me to pray much more deliberately and consistently. My desires are so fickle that I’m sure I’ve prayed for something one day and directly contradicted myself the next. Clarifying intentions means paying attention to what I’ve asked for, watching for answers. Keeping a “book of intentions,” a notebook in which I keep track of what I’m praying for other people, has also brought greater clarity and consistency to my intercessory prayers.
My Christmas list also reminds me that there’s sometimes a drastic difference between what we want and what we need. God knows what I need before I even ask him (Matt 6:8), and that includes all the food and clothes and stuff necessary for daily life (Luke 12:29-30). So, What do I really need to ask for in prayer? More than any material gift right now, I need holiness. So for a year I’ve been asking God deliberately to give me a hatred for particular sins and a love for the virtues which replace them. God is certainly answering these prayers. This has changed the way I pray for others as well. Every prayer request has a subtext. The art of praying for others is like the art of gift-giving. The best gifts are the ones that a person never realized they wanted, but were delighted to receive. If you know a person intimately, you can give these gifts. Pay attention to the subtext of a prayer request and the Spirit will lead you to pray for what’s truly needed and desired, even if it wasn’t part of the original prayer request.
With the items on my Christmas list, I’ve questioned my motives and considered whether I really need or want them, but I still haven’t sent the list off to family yet. It’s waiting to be edited. My Christmas list is presently in a draft email to my wife, which I plan to have her look at before sending it on to anyone else. I want someone else to verify that I’m asking for the right things in the right way. For another example, I’ve spent weeks crafting support letters to mail to other churches asking for money to finance Upper Room’s expansion of our worship space into the theater behind us. Others have reviewed and edited it. The stakes are high (obviously much higher than a Christmas list), so I want this letter to be perfect. But why would I think the stakes are any lower when I’m praying? Perhaps having others proofread our prayers isn’t a bad idea. Tell someone, This is what I’ve been praying for and how I’m asking for it. Does that sound right?
But after all this deliberation and intention, there’s still a marvelous gift of grace and freedom: the privilege of asking. In Philippians, Paul tells his readers to “in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). In other words, “Just ask.” We aren’t children estranged from their Father. We can ask for what we need. We can trust that the Lord provides. We do well to think wisely and carefully about what we ask for, but we can also approach God with childlike simplicity. And we can rejoice far more in the gifts we receive from the Lord than we rejoice when celebrating and opening Christmas gifts with friends and family. Thanks be to God.