Prayer and our “tangled mass of motives”

February 27, 2013
I bought Foster's book from a used bookstore years ago, and look—it's autographed!

I bought Foster’s book from a used bookstore years ago, and look—it’s autographed on the inside cover!

I’m re-reading parts of Richard Foster’s book on prayer in preparation for this Sunday’s Lenten-themed sermon on the subject. Near the beginning, he writes words that speak to my soul. My desire to pray “correctly” is itself one obstacle to my prayer life. Lo and behold: I’m not alone! Foster, an evangelical Quaker (of all things), is very near to my Wesleyan heart when he writes:

I used to think that I needed to get all my motives straightened out before I could pray, really pray. I would be in some prayer group, for example, and I would examine what I had just prayed and think to myself, “How utterly foolish and self-centered; I can’t pray this way!” And so I would determine never to pray again until my motives were pure. You understand, I did not want to be a hypocrite. I knew that God is holy and righteous. I knew that prayer is no magic incantation. I knew that I must not use God for my own ends. But the practical effect of all this internal soul-searching was to completely paralyze my ability to pray.

The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives—altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it.[†]

Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco: 1992), 8.

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