How often have I lied to members of my church? Not intentionally. Certainly not maliciously. But how many times has someone asked me, “Will you pray for me?” and I’ve answered in the affirmative and walked away forgetting to follow through. How many times have I assured a person I would take their needs to the throne of an all-sufficient, benevolent Creator and failed to keep my promise?
I know the importance of prayer. I can quote passages of Scripture instructing me to pray and other passages promising answered prayer. I have read books on prayer, even preached on prayer multiple times. Why then do I fail to pray? And why is it so difficult to consistently pray about my own needs? Could it be that I’ve stopped thinking of prayer as a privilege?
Privilege’s Sinister Twin
One of the great incentives to pray is God’s overflowing generosity. He loves to meet the needs of his children. Jesus assured his disciples that God is infinitely kinder than the kindest human father. He said,
“Who among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9-11 CSB).
Responding to the requests of his children brings God great delight. Jesus calls to our minds the smile on a father’s face when he provides his child with a satisfying dinner and says, “God is like that, only so much greater.” Greater access, greater resources, greater generosity, greater delight, greater smile.
The privilege we experience as God’s children should motivate prayer, but too often privilege morphs into its sinister twin. Instead of enjoying privileges, we become entitled. Like spoiled children, we start to assume these blessings belong to us by right, and even worse, that we deserve them. We spend our Father’s resources on ourselves, ignoring where they came from and what they’re purpose is. Forgotten is our dependence on God, and in its place is smug self-assurance. Even though everything we have comes in spite of our actions, we march around with puffed chests and bloated heads, enacting the charade that we are self-made and independent.
Ingratitude and Prayerlessness
One sure sign of our changing perspective—from blessing to entitlement—is a lack of gratitude. How many times have you performed a simple act of kindness and the recipient of that kind act failed to say thank-you? I’ve often held open a door and watched as people walked through it without the slightest acknowledgement of my existence. Their lack of gratitude is a sign of feeling privileged. A simple thank-you communicates that they understand that others contribute to their well-being, however small that contribution may be. How often do you acknowledge God’s grace to you? How often do you say thank-you? Ingratitude exposes an attitude of entitlement.
A few years ago, I took one of my sons to Juarez, Mexico, to help a local ministry deliver Christmas gifts. We entered villages with indescribable living conditions. Holes in the roof. No electricity or running water. And certainly no toys to play with. Into these villages we brought gift bags filled with necessities—like toothbrushes and soap—as well as toys and candy. Neither my son nor I can forget the unmistakable expressions of joy on the faces of the kids as they received their gift bags. But we both knew that he, my son, would have reacted differently to that gift bag. If he had opened his presents on Christmas morning and found a toothbrush, soap, candy, and a handful of inexpensive toys, he would have been disappointed. Those faces were a powerful rebuke to entitlement.
Entitlement keeps us from praying because true prayer is the overflow of gratitude and desperation. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, He wove together praise and petition. He praised God for who He is and what He is doing in the world: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10-11). Then Jesus petitioned God to meet the disciples’ needs—needs for food, forgiveness, and protection (Matthew 6:11-12). Since entitlement strangles gratitude and ignores need, it leads to the death of prayer. Why pray if I have everything I need? Why pray if everything I want is provided for me?
Getting Serious about Gratitude
One way God wakes us up to our ingratitude is through difficulties and suffering. Difficulties and suffering often lead to renewed prayer in a Christian’s life because they expose our needs. The person struggling to breathe because their lungs are filled with cancer is not inclined to act entitled. Wondering if you’ll have a roof over your head tonight tends to chase away feelings of entitlement. God will bring difficulty into our lives so that we will see our need and pray. Those in need of help come to the throne room to find grace (Hebrews 4:14-16).
But we do not have to wait until difficulties come to deal with entitlement. When we spray gratitude on the weeds of entitlement, they shrivel up and die. Not only does gratitude kill entitlement, but it also nourishes the soul, supplying nutrients necessary to see prayer blossom and grow. When the apostle Paul mentions his praying for other Christians, he usually begins by recounting how he thanks God for them (see Ephesians 1:15–16; Philippians 1:3–4; Colossians 1:3–4). Gratitude to God leads to intercession for others. Thanking God for blessings leads to asking God to meet needs.
If gratitude is one of the keys that unlocks the door of prayer, then we must get serious about gratitude. After returning from the mission trip with my son, we had him write thank-you notes to everyone who helped fund his trip. We bought cards and stamps. We had him think about what he would write, and then each day, he was responsible to sit down at the table and fill out a certain number of thank-you notes. We were serious about showing gratitude.
You and I need to get serious about gratitude, too. Just like my son sat down each morning to write a thank-you note, consider sitting down each morning and writing down one reason to thank God. Write down one person’s name and why you’re thankful for them. The more serious you are about gratitude, the more likely you’ll become consistent in prayer. And soon you’ll be able to honestly say ‘yes’ when someone asks you to pray for them.
This article first appeared on Radical.net.