Thursday, 4 September 2014

What do we really need?

Those of us in the prosperous Western churches have a problem. We are driven to prayer over what we feel we need. We need a new job because we are unhappy in our current job. We need our house to sell quickly so that we can buy a better one. We need a loved one to recover from an illness, big or small. We need our kids to behave better.

What we pray about is a reflection of what we think our needs are. Our problem is not the thing we tend to pray about. Our problem is what we think our needs are.

In 1943 Maslow published a paper which included his hierarchy of needs. The general idea is that human motivation is broadly grouped into five needs, and that we tend to ignore the higher order needs if the lower order needs are unmet. Regardless of which level needs we feel, we always feel needs, and those needs motivate us to act in the ways that we do.

Our prayers are motivated by these same kinds of needs. When we feel a need for the basics of life (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) then we pray for those things. But when all those basic needs are met we feel the higher needs and will be naturally inclined to pray for those needs to be met. It's easy to see how a prayer life of a prosperous Western Christian could be focused around the higher order needs and produce a selfish prayer life.

But Jesus asks us to do something a little unnatural when he teaches his disciples to pray. He teaches us to pray for us, not for me or for you. From Luke 11.
He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
Our prayers and our concerns must extend beyond our own feelings and desires. When we take the needs of others into account we can't avoid knowing that there are others who don't even have the basic needs fulfilled. There are still people in the world who haven't yet fulfilled the lowest levels of Maslow's hierarchy. Their needs are for food, water, clothing, and shelter.

Jesus' original hearers undoubtedly included people in the same position; Judean peasants living in sustenance farming or a low income agrarian economy. It's no wonder that this prayer is about bread and debts (moral and financial). Their needs were lower in the hierarchy than the needs we feel in the prosperous West.

You might say that Jesus was simply preaching a message to his audience, knowing their situation. In a sense that's right, but only if we stop taking an individualistic view. Jesus' audience today ought to be just as concerned with bread and forgiveness for us, not just for me.

Jesus' gospel requires us to be concerned for us, not just me and not just you. Us. I might well be living in comfort but we are not. I might feel the need for my boss to appreciate my work, but we are starving and under persecution.

What I need might not be what we need.

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