Saying daily prayers is almost always a good thing, but I must warn you that there are two kinds of prayer that I find self-defeating and even a bit dangerous.
The first is the pointless prayer of comparison that begins with, “God, please make me like this man.” It’s a prayer I sometimes utter in the midst of great people like my friend, Dennis Nichols.
Dennis is a chaplain in my California Air National Guard unit who is so loved that his recent retirement service was moved to the base theater to accommodate the burgeoning crowd.
Dennis is a well-liked man, but he’d be the first to tell you that his reputation doesn’t come from his greatness. He’s admired because he is a humble man who keeps the best interest of those he serves. He sets such a great example that I’ve often prayed to become half the chaplain he is.
I know this is a useless prayer because God creates us with our own unique gifts. Still, like you, I mumble the prayer because I can sometimes feel jealous and rather unworthy.
Still, it’s not as dangerous as the little prayer I like to call the “At Least” prayer. It starts like this: “Thank you, God, that at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so!”
While this isn’t a prayer I actually vocalize, it does slip from the surly bonds of my brain while I’m passing a breathless chubby guy in a 10K race.
Or maybe I imagine myself saying, “Thank you, God, I’m not like him!” when a self-serving jerk in a Hummer cuts in line at the gas station. It’s times like this that the prayer expresses itself with an unspoken barrel-roll of my eyes.
It’s such an easy prayer to voice. Maybe you’re praying it now. “Thank God I’m not like this hypocritical chaplain!”
I hope not, because truthfully, the prayer has an unfortunate similarity to the one prayed by the man Jesus describes in Luke 18. The man was reciting his prayer in public view of the temple congregation when he glanced over his shoulder to the back pew to see a Roman collaborator, the most hideous of all beings.
“Thank you, God, that I am not like this man,” he hissed.
His “At Least” prayer was so loud that he failed to hear the prayer of the man he was condemning.
The Message translation says the repentant tax man “slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, saying, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
“Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home, made right with God.’”
Then Jesus said something that should squelch both of these bad prayers from our repertoire.
“If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
It’s a verse I should have kept in mind as I finished the Bay to Breakers 12K race in San Francisco last month. During a moment when I thought I was making my best time, I used a water break to send a quick text message to my friends.
Running and texting don’t make a good combination. Can you guess where I ended up?
Yup. Just as Jesus predicted, flat on my face.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles. He is a board-certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains and works as a chaplain for both the Sacramento VA Hospital and the Air National Guard.