I remember running across a timely little story about two guys who had been shipwrecked on a desert island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that they had no other recourse but to pray to God. However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.
The first thing they prayed for was food. The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the land, and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man's parcel of land remained barren.
After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife. The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the land. On the other side of the island, there was nothing.
Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing.
Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship with his wife and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive God's blessings, since none of his prayers had been answered.
As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heavenbooming, "Why are you leaving your companion on the island?"
"My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one who prayed for them," the first man answered. "His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything."
"You are mistaken!" the voice rebuked him. "He had only one prayer, which I answered. If not for that, you would not have received any of my blessings."
"Tell me," the first man asked the voice, "What did he pray for that I should owe him anything?"
God replied, "He prayed that all your prayers be answered."
The memory of this story came to me as I was preparing this sermon and as I read St. Paul’s words to us from the first chapter of Philippians. "And this is my prayer," says Paul, "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
Paul’s prayer struck me as a selfless prayer devoid of thoughts of himself and of his own needs. Instead, he focused on the needs of this congregation in Philippi and the things that would truly empower them to stand before God in holiness and righteousness. Paul prayed with another person’s best interests in mind instead of his own.
Contemplate that for a moment as you contemplate your own prayer life. Contemplate the things you pray for and how you approach the Almighty. Do your prayers share the same quality of the man in the story and of St. Paul? Do your prayers center on others or on yourself?
I think if we are honest, our prayers center on both. There are times when we uplift others in prayer, and there are more than a few times we uplift ourselves and pray for the things we want. I mean, going back to last week, the Powerball hit a huge number of over $500 million. Anyone besides me buy a ticket? I bought one, and my prayers concerning it were selfish. Of course, I bargained with God. I told him that I’d be able to do a whole lot of good in giving away a good chunk of change. I told him this congregation would benefit; that the food pantry would benefit; that people in need would benefit, and of course they would have.
However, God also knew that there was in my heart a deep desire for my own financial benefit. He knew that my desires to help others wasn’t just based on my desire to help others–it was mainly based on my desire to accumulate more wealth. At the heart of the prayer wasn’t only a desire to help others but to help myself.
And, of course, there isn’t anything wrong with praying for our desires and wants. That’s part of the life of prayer. God wants to know such things. God wants to hear us express those thoughts and desires. He wants us to be honest, not only with Him but with ourselves. And being honest with ourselves and the deepest desires of our hearts helps us to discern whether or not we are being self-centered or God-centered in our prayers.
I didn’t win the Powerball, and I didn’t pray for anyone around here to win it either. My prayers were self-centered on this one, without question.
But, there were other prayers that were definitely focused on others. A few weeks ago when Remington Reichardt was having surgery, I spent an hour that morning in prayer for her. I sat in our prayer room in the office and sought to uplift her and the doctors and those caring for her during the course of her surgery. I’m continuing to lift her up in prayer as they begin turning on the deep implant devices. I stand to gain nothing by this prayer. Remington, Courtney, Russell, and Rhys stand to gain a whole lot. It’s a different kind of prayer.
I know many of you were praying the same prayer as well, and what happened during her surgery?
Remington’s recovery was amazing. She was home from the hospital much sooner than expected and has done very well even getting to attend her own fundraiser just a few nights later. Did prayer have an effect? If you ask me, you bet it did. And most of those prayers were not centered on ourselves. Big difference.
Now, I’m not suggesting that every time you pray for someone to receive something, they will get it. That’s not going to happen. Prayer doesn’t work that way, and I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now, but what I do want to suggest is that when we pray for the best interests of others, those prayers have a higher likelihood of coming true than if we pray for ourselves. When we pray for the best possible outcomes for our neighbors and friends and family, things tend to work out better because not only are prayers more likely to be answered, we are also more likely to view them in a different light. We are more likely to view them with more compassion, more love, and more dignity.
Think about what this world would be like if we prayed as St. Paul prayed. Think about what this world would be like if we prayed that all people would be filled with the knowledge of God so that they might discern what is best to do and be. Think about what the world would be like if we selflessly lifted up others in prayer in this fashion and others then lifted us up likewise. "This is my prayer," said St. Paul, "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God." Amen.