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Is Prayer Selfish?

Asking God to stack the odds in our favor is asking him to stack them against someone else.

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There is an alternative, another kind of prayer that isn’t about requesting or celebrating special treatment at the hands of an interventionist deity. Instead it is about something within us, about our struggle to live in alignment with our deepest values. In fact it is about resisting the self-serving impulses that drive so many bowed head moments. This kind of prayer takes many forms.

For the traditional theist, it may begin with  the words of St. Francis, “Lord, Make me an instrument of thy peace....” Alternately, the message may be less eloquent, more wry, more hesitant. It may borrow words from a single wisdom tradition or a mix or none at all. It doesn’t matter. Because such a prayer is experienced as a sacred conversation, the act of giving voice in prayer to deeply held values and yearnings can be powerful, even self-fulfilling.

Others of us may find that, in the absence of a traditional god concept, our prayers feel more like meditation than invocation, more like being than asking. We may not even think of them as prayers because the word carries so much sordid, selfish, superstitious baggage; but I think it is ok if we do. A prayer may be nothing more than a deep, centering breath; a moment of silence; a thrill of delight; or a surge of love that brings tears to our eyes, reminding us beautifully, painfully, quietly of our small place in the greater whole. In a world with gods or without, in our world today or even a world beyond belief, that is a kind of prayer worth praying. 

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of "Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light" and "Deas and Other Imaginings." Her articles can be found at
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