Is prayer selfish and delusional?


Last week I wrote a bit about Henri Nouwen’s suggestion that we try to avoid recognising our mortality and our limitations by thinking of ourselves as immortal, invulnerable beings. (He wrote about this in his book Reaching Out.) If we trick ourselves into thinking we can completely control our environment and the people around us we end up doing violence to them.

I think the way we’ve often thought about prayer has been as a way to control things, like a religious version of the law of positive attraction. It can be just another way of pretending we’re in control of the universe. A while ago I knew a guy who repeatedly asked me why I prayed. He saw it as a selfish thing to be asking God for things. I think I get where he was coming from.

Nouwen’s challenge is to try and pray without an agenda. He describes this as waiting on God rather than rattling off a shopping list. It’s making space where God’s presence may (or may not) show up. He suggests paradoxically that we find God in God’s absence. Our experience of God’s absence leads us to search for God. That search for God is what prayer is. This approach comes across to me as a lot more humble. It’s not pretending we have God on call.

I don’t what to throw out the idea of asking God for thing either though. I think those kind of prayers do seem pretty selfish when if it’s a wealthy person asking God for more stuff, expecting the universe to revolve at our convenience. I don’t think it seems like that when people who are in serious trouble ask God for help (not knowing if God is even there) because there is no other option available. For those of us in more comfortable situations, we might find ourselves praying in that way too, if we open ourselves up to people who are suffering.

The illusion of immortality

I’ve recently written a few posts about Henri Nouwen’s three movements of the spiritual life, as related in his book Reaching Out. In the third section of the book talks about our efforts to avoid death, pretending we can control of our life, that we have no limits. When we’re under this illusion, solitude and hospitality can become just achievements that we show off to others to show how great we are. Having an arthritic condition that’s previously put me out of action for a long period of time, I should be aware of my limitations, but I still fall for this illusion. At the moment I’m needing to let go of some of the things I feel like I could be doing (or should be doing). It’s about trusting that it’s okay to be limited and for some things to be undone.


This probably isn’t what we’d think of as prayer, because we’re used to thinking of prayer as a religious practise where we ask God for things. But Nouwen talks about this as a movement toward prayer.