Praying for God’s glory means letting His sovereign wisdom decide what to do with your prayers and your life. It means keeping our focus on Him and on His glory over our own. “Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or for bending his will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to his.” When we can’t pray and mean “Your will be done,” we are essentially telling God “My will be done.”
Discerning our motives in prayer isn’t always cut-and-dried. As justified sinners, we should always be suspicious of our sinful hearts. “The temptation to misuse prayer is native to us and comes . . . automatically to every believer,” writes Ole Hallesby.1
Our goal behind evaluating our motives should also be to have a pure heart before God—not necessarily to have prayers answered according to our liking.
The following diagnostic questions overlap a bit, because it’s easier to expose dirty motives by shining light on them from several angles. If you can’t answer the following questions in the affirmative, then your prayers are out of bounds and it’s time to check your heart.
- Am I Praying for God’s Glory?
God calls us to do all things for His glory (see 1 Cor. 10:31)— including prayer. This is why Jesus teaches us that “whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). When we pray for our own glory, we clash with God’s purposes and exalt ourselves over Him. And our sinful motives often disguise themselves so well that we think we’re seeking God’s glory when we aren’t.
W. Bingham Hunter describes one subtle way of secretly seeking your own glory as “praying with faith in your faith.”2 This type of prayer twists the good promise of answered prayer into a formula. If I pray with enough faith, I will get what I want! And this not only doesn’t glorify God but also doesn’t often work. Hunter explains how praying this way leads to frustration:
When the answer is not forthcoming, we are left only with questions: Did I have enough faith? Did my friends who prayed with me have enough faith? Should I have fasted or perhaps claimed a different promise? Attention is centered on prayer methods and techniques for generating faith. Thoughts center on us. Then they begin to shift with measurable envy toward those who apparently had enough faith: Why him or her and not me? The progression may end in speculations about the reality of God’s love, justice and goodness. The results? We feel alienated from ourselves: we have too little faith. We feel alienated from others: they had enough faith. And we feel alienated from God who set up such a system in the first place. Essentially we are telling God how to glorify himself in our lives . . . and he wouldn’t do it.3
Praying for God’s glory means letting His sovereign wisdom decide what to do with your prayers and your life. It means keeping our focus on Him and on His glory over our own. “Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or for bending his will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to his.”4 When we can’t pray and mean “Your will be done,” we are essentially telling God “My will be done.”
A few questions will help you to evaluate whether you are praying for God’s glory:
- Would the desired answer to your prayer cause God’s name to be praised?
- Would your desired answer to this prayer bring you closer to God or push you away from Him?
- How would your desired answer to this prayer impact others? Would it help you to love them more?
- Would Jesus pray this prayer in the same situation?5
- Am I Praying in Line with Scripture?
This question provides a helpful litmus test for our motives. If we ever pray for something that’s forbidden in Scripture (and thus outside of God’s will), we cannot expect to receive the answer we’re hoping for—and we likely have an idol in our lives to repent of. R.C. Sproul exposes one particularly heinous way of doing this:
Professing Christians often ask God to bless or sanction their sin. They are even capable of telling their friends they have prayed about a certain matter and God has given them peace despite what they prayed for was contrary to His will. Such prayers are thinly veiled acts of blasphemy, and we add insult to God when we dare to announce that His Spirit has sanctioned our sin by giving us peace in our souls. Such a peace is a carnal peace and has nothing to do with the peace that passes understanding, the peace that the Spirit is pleased to grant to those who love God and love His law.6
Don’t miss Sproul’s last point: peace isn’t from God if it’s a “peace” we’re feeling when our actions are flying in the face of scriptural truth. We should weigh every prayer and every motive against God’s Word.7 When we are clearly at odds with the Word, we need to repent. When we aren’t sure, we need to ask God to reveal sin in us and to consider what negative desires and powerful emotions may be warping our prayers.
- Am I Pursuing Humility and Holiness?
After James explains the danger of praying with impure motives, he shares how we can repent of them. He quotes from Proverbs, which says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; cf. Prov. 3:34), and then he presents this litany of commands:
Submit yourselves therefore to God.
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Be wretched and mourn and weep.
Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. (James 4:7–9)
And then he closes with what ties everything he’s been saying all together: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (v. 10). Essentially, James sandwiches commands to repent between two calls to humility.
Being humble before God is a key part of testing our motives, because it (1) recognizes that our motives may be out of whack and (2) acknowledges that God both knows our sinful motives and is able to reveal them to us. If we want to properly discern our motives, we need to pursue humility and holiness, because a life of sin and pride will cloud our spiritual vision and make it difficult for us to discern our true motives.
James commands holiness and reconciliation with God. The “double-minded” person mentioned in James 1:8 is someone who claims to love God but actually loves sin. James says in verses 7 and 8 that a double-minded person is unstable in his ways and “must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” Does sin have a grip on your heart? Those who love Jesus keep His commandments (see John 14:15). In humility, repent of any double-mindedness in your life and pursue God as your greatest love. A healthy life of prayer must never be divorced from a faithful life of Christian obedience.
This article is an excerpt from the chapter “I Have Mixed Motives” of Kevin Halloran’s book When Prayer Is a Struggle: A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer. Pick up a copy of When Prayer Is a Struggle for more gospel encouragement and practical tools for growing in prayer. Visit www.kevinhalloran.net to learn more about the book or to connect with Kevin. Used with permission.
- O. Hallesby, Prayer, trans. Clarence J. Carlsen, updated ed. (Minneapolis: Augs- burg Fortress, 1994), 122.
- W. Bingham Hunter, The God Who Hears (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 1986), 161.
- Hunter, 161–62.
- John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, rev. ed., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 188.
- This last question is a paraphrase of Hunter in The God Who Hears, 198. 76
- R.C. Sproul, The Invisible Hand: Do All Things Really Work for Good? (1996; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 209, quoted in Paul Tautges, Brass Heavens: Reasons for Unanswered Prayer (Adelphi, MD: Cruciform Press, 2013), 27.
- It’s also worth mentioning here the utility of regularly praying Scripture, which helps us to keep our hearts and motives tied to the truth of the Word. Doing so is a prayer-filtering mechanism that makes discerning our motives easier and more automatic.