Before there was an internet with an Amazon Wish List and other wish list sites, there was the Sears-Roebuck catalog. For people growing up in my time, this functioned as our wish list. (In fact, I think the Christmas catalog was even called The Wish Book).
My father was an engineer—a man given to practicality. Every year around Thanksgiving he would tell us we had $25 to spend for Christmas, point to the catalog and tell us to knock ourselves out. What may have been lacking in charm and mystique at our house during the season was partially compensated by certainty about what you would be receiving.
I remember poring over the catalogs’ pages and forming attachments to various items. I would begin listing what I wanted and inevitably end up with a total that was about ten times more than my budget. I would then painstakingly whittle down the list until the items and the amount were in harmony.
Then I would wait in anticipation.
Despite the fact that I had picked exactly what I wanted, my present rarely matched my expectations. After the newness wore off whatever it was became just one more thing and disappeared into the closet or under the bed. But I was a child, and how often do children really know what they want? They just think they do.
Mark tells us that James and John asked Jesus for something, while Matthew tells us it was their mother. It could be that these things happened relatively close together yet separately, or maybe they put their mother up to asking for them. Whatever the case, the request was that James and John be given the places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. Christ told them in no uncertain terms they didn’t know what they were asking for. God told Israel the same kind of thing when they told Him they wanted a king. The truth is, adults don’t always know what they really want. They just think they do.
In Numbers 32, two tribes of Israel (later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh) asked Moses to let them settle in land outside of Canaan (i.e., the east side of the Jordan River). There’s no doubt that it was good land, but it certainly wasn’t as good as what God had in mind for them. Additionally, they would be separated from the rest of the tribes by the Jordan. Nevertheless, God gave them what they asked for just as He later gave Israel a king. He also allowed them to send spies into the land of Canaan when they requested that (Deuteronomy 1) and that didn’t work out very well for them. Even though people don’t know what they are asking for, God will sometimes grant their request!
Our Father isn’t playing games with us, He’s trying to teach us to think more deeply about what we ask for rather than treating Him like the Sears catalog or an Amazon Wish List (James 4:2-3). And while this is a great place to start, it’s not where we want to finish. While being more reflective is helpful, the simple truth is there will still be occasions when “We do not know what we ought to pray for” (Romans 8:26). We need to thank God for the intercession of the Spirit and buffer our prayers with the confession of our limitations, acknowledgement that God knows best, and the request for “Your will be done.”
We pray Your will be done because as we grow in faith, we come to realize that prayer isn’t about getting our will approved in heaven—it’s about getting God’s will accomplished on earth. That’s the way our Lord understood it (Matthew 26) and we want to follow in His steps.