For all the grief I give Joel Osteen for his toothy grin, his Dapper Dan hair, his swarmy, snake-oil salvation sales pitch and his dilution of the Gospel to the basest of our American prosperity-driven desires, I have to admit Joel Osteen gets exactly right what so many other ‘enlightened’ or ‘faithful’ Christians get wrong.
If what you really want in your heart of hearts is to happen upon an empty parking space or to receive that promotion at work, then Joel Osteen thinks, by all means, go ahead and pray for the rock-star parking spot outside Nordstroms. If that’s what you really want, you should pray for it.
Pray for whatever you really want, Osteen says.
And I agree.
As a pastor in a
mainoldline Protestant tradition, I know more Christians who are reluctant to pray than are ready to pray, and I’ve found that one of the primary reasons people find it hard to pray is that they pray for the wrong things.
That is, they pray for the things for which they think they’re supposed to be praying. They pray for ‘spiritual things,’ rather than the things they actually want.
Too often people feel they ought to want a cure for cancer or the end of 3rd world hunger when really they want a nice bonus at work so they can buy that new flat screen and so they pray for the former when the latter is who they really are.
But it would selfish and unChristian to pray for a TV instead of the hungry being fed, right?
Joel Osteen doesn’t think so. And I don’t think so.
And neither did Hebert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher.
Herbert McCabe, said that the distractions people experience in prayer are really their real wants and concerns breaking in their feigned, bogus wants and concerns that we think are the only proper ones for prayer.
“When you are really praying for what you really want you won’t be distracted” McCabe writes, “the prayers of people on sinking ships are rarely troubled by distractions.”
Because all prayer is an entering into the life of the Trinity through the Spirit, McCabe taught that prayer is a matter of bringing ourselves- in the form of our wants and needs- before the Father.
If we don’t bring our authentic, flat-screen desiring selves to God but instead pretend to be altruistic, pious saints then we don’t really make contact with God at all.
“Prayer of petition is a form of self-exploration and at the same time self-realization. If we are honest enough to admit our shabby infantile desires, then the grace of God will grow in us…it will slowly be revealed to us, precisely in the course of our prayer, that there are more important things that we truly do want. But this will not be an abstract recognition that we ought to want these things; we will really discover a desire for them in ourselves.”
I have my doubts about syrupy Joel O’s authenticity; nonetheless, his angle on prayer is spot-on.
If parking-space wanting you is the genuine you then pray for the damn parking space instead of peace in the Middle East.
As in most things so with prayer and discipleship, you’ve got to start with where you are.
You can only become someone else, through grace, if you begin with who you really are.
“We will never grow in the life of prayer if we begin by imagining that we are St John of the Cross. We have to begin with our own infantile imperfect grasping state. All that the Father requires of us is that we recognize ourselves for what we are. He will attend to the growing. He will grant the increase. Children will never mature if they are treated as adults from the age of two.”
So maybe there’s a reason Joel O’s books and preaching are pablum. Maybe, just maybe, he recognizes what his audience does not- what more ‘sophisticated’
mainoldline Christians do not:
Just how childish we really are.
True prayer begins with owning it.