A couple of days ago, I wrote about “Little Prayers.” I believe God hears our prayers about the so-called “little things.” But I think there is a type of prayer that is not “little”, but “paltry.” What’s the difference? “Paltry” doesn’t just imply little or trivial, it connotes something meager and petty. And I think we waste a lot of time on it.
Paltry prayer is generic and insubstantial. It’s like the horrible small talk at a social event one doesn’t want to attend, but feels obligated to show up at, because it’s expected. When we throw up a prayer, but we really don’t want to get “real” before God, we’re offering crumbs instead of a sacrifice; face-time, instead of intimate conversation.
There are times when we cry out in desperation; we have no words or fleshed-out thoughts, only groans. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the times when we want to reassure ourselves that we’re one of the good guys– that our plans and wishes have God’s stamp of approval–without actually risking God’s authoritative answer. “God, help me to do your will today,” sounds like a great prayer, but do we really mean what we’re saying? Or are we really asking God to approve of our own will and plans as we go through the day?
I’m especially concerned that we are offering paltry prayers in regards to evangelism and revival. We want it to come– we want God to send a fresh wave of revival to our communities, our country, and our world– but let it begin and end without making us too uncomfortable, too aware of our own need for confession, forgiveness, or change. We want our neighbor to be saved– without the pain of witnessing and being laughed at or ostracized. We want to be emboldened to witness, but we don’t want to be humbled into listening. We want to be blessed; we don’t want to be tested.
I get very discouraged sometimes, when I realize that my own prayers have been paltry. But there is good news– the same loving Father that wants deeper conversation with me is endlessly forgiving, encouraging, and loving. And I am not alone in offering meager conversation or selfish complaints before His throne.
Jonah (yes the “Big Fish” guy of the Bible) was a prophet– a very successful one, except for the episode with Nineveh. Not only did Jonah run as far from Nineveh as a ship could take him; he basically committed suicide to avoid doing God’s bidding. When his shipmates are in a panic, Jonah demands that they throw him in the sea. This is not as a result of consulting with God, nor does the Bible suggest that it is at God’s command. The sailors continue to panic at the thought of throwing Jonah overboard, and are astonished when the storm stops as Jonah sinks toward the ocean floor. If not for the fish, Jonah would have drowned. God sent the fish to save Jonah, but there is nothing to suggest that Jonah had any idea of being rescued. However, from the belly of the fish, Jonah lifts up a poetic prayer, in which he sings the praises of the God who spared his life. He marvels at his rescue and restoration, and vows to go back to Nineveh and fulfill his destiny. His prayer strikes all the “holy” notes one would wish to see, but I would contend that this is, at its heart, a paltry prayer– sincere in the moment, but not the prayer of a man fully transformed by his near-death experience.
Fast forward to the fourth chapter of the book of Jonah. Nineveh has heard Jonah’s message about God’s wrath and impending judgment; the people have had a miraculous change of heart, and God has agreed to spare them from destruction (for a time– the Ninevites went back to their old habits and were eventually destroyed). Imagine if the late Billy Graham had held a rally in Moscow or Tehran or Los Angeles and the ENTIRE CITY had repented?! This is success beyond imagination. But we don’t find Jonah grateful and poetic as he was at the end of chapter two– instead, he is hateful and bitter, and praying for death! God causes a small vine to grow and provide some shade for Jonah as he sits and sulks, but then he sends a worm to chew up the vine so it withers. Jonah is more heartbroken at the loss of the vine then he was over the possibility of the destruction of an entire city. Jonah’s story doesn’t end in triumph, but in triviality.
Prayer is a great opportunity to pour out our hearts before God– but it also reveals the content and character of our hearts. If our prayers are paltry and our hearts shallow, God will often humble us. But he will also rescue us from our own sinfulness and sulking, and give us all that we need to finish victoriously. The book of Jonah is a great cautionary tale– let’s learn from it, today.
What can we do to make our prayers less “paltry” and more proactive? Check out the suggestions on the attached pages of this blog, or look online for prayer groups and prayer sites that offer constructive ideas.