I don’t pray like I used to.
In the infancy of my faith, I treated prayer like a business transaction—righteousness in, blessings out. I prayed with confident, entitled certainty, like a child writing a wish list to Santa Claus or a bride making a gift registry at Target. I prayed for all my favorite things, and I expected them to arrive in a timely fashion, in brown paper packages tied up with strings.
It is written: The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. I figured this verse just meant that if I was just righteous all the time, then life would be sunshine and lollipops.
I knew the secret formula. I knew how to kick the cosmic vending machine in just the right spot to get the candy bar.
But we are not promised a life of ease—the Bible says that, too.
In this life, you will have trouble.
This verse is not one we put on bumper stickers or hang above fireplaces.
We usually only hear its counterpart, the second half of the verse, quoted alone and out of context: Take heart, for I have overcome the world. (That half, at least, is bumper sticker worthy.)
I wanted—and expected—a life of ease in exchange for my righteousness. I only wanted to fall to my knees on my own terms.
Mine were only ever prayers of entitlement.
I prayed for what I thought I deserved, and I thought that somehow, my righteousness would make me impervious to trouble. I thought trouble was a hard truth for other people to deal with, for people who weren’t righteous enough, but not for me. I was righteous—my prayers were powerful and effective.
I wanted my candy bar.
But trouble is a guarantee in this life, and God is not a vending machine to be kicked.
Things fell apart when trouble showed up, just as promised.
This trouble was not a minor annoyance, either, not merely some housefly to be swatted away. It was a veritable termite infestation. It ate away at the structure of my life until everything began to crumble: my health, my career, my chance at a natural-born family—all rubble at my feet.
I found myself on my knees, but praying was the last thing I wanted to do. I was angry. I felt like I had fulfilled my end of the bargain, but somehow, my righteousness had not been enough to stave off that inevitable, promised trouble.
I’m a good person, I thought. Why is this happening to me?
To be honest, I felt cheated, like the cosmic vending machine had eaten my quarters. I felt like God owed me something in exchange for all my righteousness. If I wasn’t going to get what I wanted out of praying, I saw no point in doing it.
So I stopped putting quarters in that vending machine. It felt like a waste.
But not even Jesus, the epitome of righteousness, was spared a life of trouble. At the time, I was far too busy being righteous to realize that, but I see it now.
Take this cup from me, He prayed.
He asked God to take the trouble away.
But God didn’t.
The only thing left to do is drink from it.
I’m starting to think this is what true righteousness is . . . acknowledging with humility our own powerlessness and asking God to intervene.
God deliberately puts us into positions of weakness to empty us of our notions of power and control.
My power is made perfect in weakness.
Righteousness does not operate in a vending machine economy. It is not smug piety, a belief that we are responsible for any of our answered prayers because we kept putting in quarters.
Forget the quarters. True righteousness is coming to terms with your weakness.
The trouble will come, and it will try us. It will bring us to our knees, not out of piety, but out of brokenness. Prayers of entitlement come from a posture of piety, but prayers of desperation come out of ruin. My prayers had always been ones of entitlement. Prayer had been nothing more than a transactional insurance policy.
I no longer have any interest in prayers of entitlement. Mine have become prayers of desperation—of complete and total powerlessness—because there is no more righteous position than complete and total weakness.
That’s when God moves.