(RNS) Theologian James Mulholland has written a book cutting against the cultural grain. In a time of plenty when it's fashionable to implore God for what we want, Mulholland urges a more selfless approach to prayer.
He contends prayer's true meaning is not about what we want, but about what God wants and his new book, "Praying Like Jesus: The Lord's Prayer in a Culture of Prosperity" (HarperSanFrancisco, $14.95) is a timely meditation on his view of prayer and discipleship.
Muholland, an ordained American Baptist minister, challenges the overwhelmingly popular prayer pattern exemplified by the so-called prayer of Jabez, which has become something of a sacred cow in the world of popular American spirituality.
"The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life" (Multinomah Publishers, $9.99) by Bruce Wilkinson, is a small book that has topped The New York Times bestseller list and become wildly popular. The book, which had sold more than 4 million copies as of late spring, is a slim volume, one infinitely more successful than might be expected.
It repeats a short prayer included in a section of biblical genealogies. Uttered by an obscure Old Testament figure named Jabez, the 32-word petition asks: "Oh, that you (God) would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!"
The prayer's popularity feeds a rampant element in American society that seeks personal success and material gain, not God's purpose, argues Mulholland. An Indianapolis resident, he has worked for years in prison ministry, assistance to the homeless and youth community service programs. He worries that prayer's self-correcting nature is being distorted in a culture of prosperity.
"Across America, hundreds of pastors are being pulled aside by excited church members, who are saying, `You have to pray this prayer. It's changed my life.' Such a testimony is hard to dispute, especially when it is a prayer that includes the requests `bless me, enlarge my territory, keep your hand on me, and keep me from pain,' he writes. "In a materialistic, self-centered culture, such a prayer will always be attractive."
If pastors embrace this prayer wholeheartedly, Mulholland says, they will ignore warnings from the book's author that his book is not intended to justify selfishness. "Unfortunately, they won't reflect on the dangers of teaching self-centered people to begin each day with the chant, `Bless me!' They won't worry about the compromises inherent in a marriage of prayer and prosperity."
Instead, Mulholland urges Christians embrace the Lord's Prayer as taught by Jesus to the disciples in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
"I invite you to reconsider the `Prayer of Jesus.' I cannot assure you of material blessing. I cannot promise you expanded prosperity, power, and influence. I cannot guarantee you a life free from struggle and pain," Mulholland says. "Of course, to expect such results is more like magic than prayer. If you are only interested in getting what you want, I have nothing to offer you."
Actually he does. But his lessons are not easy.
Exploring his own life, his self-righteousness and his need forapproval, Mulholland teaches a countercultural lesson. First, one must get beyond basic stumbling blocks, he says, including prayers of self-righteousness and self-interest. He goes on to explore how the name used to address God may be less significant than how one prays, urging that prayer be approached with an understanding of the importance of such values as responsibility and community.
In a wide-ranging meditation that takes readers from the late 1980s fall from grace of televangelist Jim Bakker to the benefits of confession, Mulholland articulates a powerful argument for the Lord's Prayer.
"The point of prayer is not to tell God what you want, but to hear what you need," he stresses. "It is not approaching God with our demands, but listening for God's commands. It is not about seeking our will, but learning to discern God's will. This is so important to understand in a culture that caters to our every whim. Prayer isn't about me. It is about God."