Here’s a common scenario from my college years (and many afterward): I’d be praying in my dorm room, often for a recurring request. As I’d pray, I’d notice that I was just … asking. My heart didn’t feel totally engaged.
I’d remember Jesus’ command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). Then I’d recall some vague caution I’d heard somewhere about rote, mechanical prayers and treating God like a vending machine.
So I’d refocus, trying to pump passion, hunger, need into my soul — this time really trying to mean it just in case “not being serious enough” was the reason God hadn’t answered yet. Then I’d say amen and head to class, emotionally wrung out but satisfied that at least I’d prayed hard enough.
I think, for most average Christians with average prayer lives, this is a common experience. There’s a sense that we need to emotionally “muscle up,” generate some passion, to do serious prayer. Otherwise, it’s just an empty ritual. And that’s not good, right?
To be clear, I’m not cautioning against praying from the heart. Nor am I arguing that a just-check-the-box prayer time is the healthy alternative.
At the same time, I think this scenario reveals something fascinating that’s worth bringing to light: You can’t out-want God.
It seems like an obvious statement at face value. Of course, no one can want something more than God. He is infinitely loving, overflowing in mercy, and abundant in grace. Yet I think our prayer lives show we believe a different story — a story of a God who is flinty and tightfisted, a Scrooge-like hoarder whose attention and gifts can only be captured by raw emotional force.
Thus, our lived experience of prayer and God’s heart is less like a relationship and more like a battle of wills. We sense a desire asymmetry between God and ourselves. He knows what we need and won’t give it to us, we think. Whatever we want so badly, we feel like he doesn’t want us to have it. All the desire is on our side of the equation.
True, sometimes “praying hard” is an honest outpouring of our real feelings. But sometimes it’s also because deep down we think that to get God to care about what we care about, we have to make him care, to make him want what we want.
The Desire Asymmetry of Psalm 131
We get a fascinating and subtle picture of this in Psalm 131. It’s a short psalm, a sliver of three verses wedged into the back of the Psalter:
1My heart is not proud, LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its motherl
like a weaned child I am content.
3Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.
The focal image of the Psalm comes in verse two with a mother and child resting together in peace. The key detail is that the child has been weaned from breast milk and now eats solid food.
The Psalm invites us to imagine, first, unweaned children: squalling, crying, screaming with tears for help. Unweaned infants haven’t learned to trust that their mother wants them to live, grow, and thrive even more than they do.
Contrast that with weaned children, who have internalized the beginnings of this trust. They know that meals will come at regular times — and maybe even at surprising, delightful ones. They are confident that their basic need for food will be met by a mother who cares for them. Even when hungry, they can wait in contentment.
Unweaned children are in bondage to their needs. But weaned children have their first taste of freedom, a freedom that (hopefully) grows up as they do — learning that their parents’ love and longings for them are so much deeper and more expansive than even their own.
Psalm 131 inverts the desire asymmetry that we so often bring into prayer, perhaps even into our life with God as a whole. It invites us out of life as a tug-of-war with God into one where his desires, wants, longings for us (and the world) are not competing against ours but are grander, better, simply more. There is indeed a desire asymmetry between us and God, but not like we think — we can’t out-want God.
This is how Paul can want the Ephesian church to know “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:18-19). No matter how much we want God to love us, God wants to love us more.
It’s how Jesus can tell his disciples (and us) that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains (Mt 17:20). However weak-faithed our prayers are, God wants to hear them more.
It’s how we can pray without needing to psych ourselves up with fake emotion or spiritual tantrums or long-winded monologues or masks of piety. No matter the condition of our heart, God wants to connect with us — the real us — more.
And it’s how we can be free. Free from a pathological need to “pray hard” just to show God we’re serious. Free from the fear that whatever God cares about or wants in this world, it isn’t our lives or our needs. Free from the crushing, paralyzing sense that our prayers ricochet off the ceiling of God’s indifference rather than rising like incense into the pure ether of his love.
To be sure, Psalm 131 is not the final word on prayer. Scripture has examples of lament, grief, and wrestling that all have their time and place in our relationship with God. And the mystery of unanswered prayer will always be with us, at least this side of heaven.
But Psalm 131 is, in its little three-verse way, the final word on God’s heart. He can be trusted with our wants because we can’t out-want him. Like Israel in verse three, we can “put our hope in him” today — with finals and relationship questions and career worries and fears for the future — trusting that he joins his richer, grander, greater desires to ours, strengthening them to their fullest expression as they rise to his heart.
Drew Larson works as a writer on InterVarsity’s Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. You can buy his book here (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09V21MXDF) or support his ministry at donate.intervarsity.org/donate#15790.
Last-minute final papers, weekly discussion posts, and 12-page reports that seem to extend forever—don’t worry, I know the feeling too. For those of us who are students (and some of us who aren’t as well), there are some days—maybe even many days—when writing feels like a chore, something on a checklist to cross off.
I heard a sermon about how the true beauty of healing prayer lies in its portrayal of the kingdom of heaven. It invites us to know Jesus more intimately. I didn’t really understand this until I saw healing prayer work differently than I expected.
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