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Narcissistic Prayer versus the Lord’s Prayer

 

 

Can prayers be narcissistic? A great many prayers are in the first person, like the laments in the Psalms. “God help me, rescue me, forgive me, heal me” are typical petitions in the first person. But praying for oneself can become narcissism when concern for oneself supersedes loving our neighbors.

Prayers can be narcissistic and insulting to God. I believe this is the case with the prayer by Franklin Graham that has flooded cable news networks since the election. At a time when three to four thousand people are dying of COVID daily and millions are worried about food, housing, and employment, Graham confidently advertises the traditional evangelical prayer “come into my heart Lord Jesus” as the solution for this time. There is nothing in his recorded message that connects love of neighbor and personal salvation. Furthermore, his credibility as an agent of God in our time is doubtful because he remains a steadfast supporter of twice-impeached Donald Trump. Graham even compared the Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment to Judas’s betrayal of Christ. The implied comparison of Trump to Christ is a horrific act of the blind leading the blind.

Graham and his fellow evangelical devotees of Donald Trump have not repented of racism, encouragement of violent white supremacists, persecution of immigrants, or self-centered claims of religious liberty that infringed on human rights of those who don’t share ultra-conservative prejudices. Yet Graham boldly offers his solution for our time –  repenting of personal transgressions, declaring belief in Jesus, and asking for salvation.

Make no mistake about it, preoccupation with individual salvation that expresses no concern for the multiple traumas impacting American society is narcissism that insults God and Jesus. How does professing belief in Jesus show repentance by evangelicals for the immorality and damage of the Trumpism they supported? Why would Jesus, who preferred the compassionate Samaritan to passers-by who minded their own business, care what we believe about him if we ignore the social carnage overwhelming so many of our neighbors?

For too long conservative evangelical Christians have ignored the social emphasis in the Lord’s Prayer. The narcissism of evangelical focus on personal salvation is not found in the model Christian prayer or in the well-known parables illustrating principles in the prayer.  First, the Lord’s Prayer centers on God and dedication to realizing God’s Kingdom on Earth. It is not belief in God or Jesus that matters, but commitment seen through action. How that dedication is shown matters, not the details of a person’s beliefs. Second, the Lord’s Prayer uses plural nouns because the Kingdom of God is essentially social. Daily bread, forgiveness, and resistance to temptation are community priorities in this appeal to God. This prayer illustrates the importance of loving God and neighbor through action.

Two parables known by all Christians illustrate the message of the Lord’s Prayer. In the Prodigal Son, Jesus described how restoration could occur when repentance is followed by appropriate action. The son repented of narcissistic behavior, returned home to apologize and admit his self-centered errors. The reaction of the father as he forgave the wandering son had social consequences that the righteous older brother was expected to accept rather than nurse a personal grudge. The linkage of giving and receiving forgiveness is part of the message to both brothers in the story.

Evangelical sermons usually present the story of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25 as a tale of individual judgment for sin. Look again. People are judged in two large groups – those who habitually treated others with the standard of love taught by Jesus and those who usually failed that standard. Individual beliefs were not the issue. Specific transgressions were not the issue. Recognizing God in others and habitually treating them as members of your family was an illustration of dedication to realizing God’s Kingdom. Personal beliefs and attitudes were irrelevant, for it was compassionate action that was God’s standard.

What would be a legitimate prayer for this time in history? Following the model of the Lord’s Prayer, it would begin by urging the arrival of God’s Kingdom today. What form does that take? It is the Beloved Community described by Martin Luther King, Jr. and summarized on the website for the King Center. It is a Kingdom of God that includes everyone and insists on equity for all, irrespective of race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation. It is a society dedicated to environmental justice as part of recognizing how our lifestyles impact God’s Earth. It is a community in which violence is rejected along with poverty, hunger, intolerance of differences, and privilege that sets individuals or groups above other human beings.

The prayer would commit to extending forgiveness while recognizing our need to be forgiven. There are many items Graham could mention that call for forgiveness – of support for violent white supremacists, of hypocrisy in excusing immorality of political leaders who cater to political gains of evangelicals, of using religious liberty as the excuse for persecuting those whose exercise of rights offends our desire for privilege, and of treating immigrants of all varieties as illegitimate beggars for amnesty. There are a great many Americans who should repent of demonizing compassion and amnesty as they refuse to extend social privileges to those outside their social, economic, or racial groups.

Prayer is not always social. The gospels describe Jesus spending time in private prayers as he made decisions during his ministry. Asking for healing and guidance through life’s personal challenges is appropriate but must not overrule Christian social emphasis on loving God and neighbor.

There are a great many former evangelicals who have become numb to the usual calls for personal salvation in Graham’s narcissistic prayer. The inadequacy of old evangelical formulas stands out amidst a horrific pandemic and growing right-wing violence. The good news is that support for the Beloved Community is spreading among Protestant communities and their mission outreach programs – as illustrated by the websites for the Episcopal Church and Habitat for Humanity.

How can we replace the message of Franklin Graham’s prayer with the more appropriate Lord’s Prayer? One way is to spread the modernized phrasing of the New Zealand Anglican Lord’s Prayer found on a website of the Salvation Army New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa Territory.

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever.
Amen.

Prayers can be narcissistic if they ignore the model Jesus gave, which can always be updated for current situations. Being true to the model requires putting God and social commitment to neighbors above emphasis on ourselves.

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Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and Sunday School teacher in a Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider.

 

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References:

Simone Jasper, “Franklin Graham says Republicans who voted to impeach Trump are like Jesus’ betrayer,” Charlotte Observer, January 15, 2021, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/state/north-carolina/article248528080.html.

Robert P. Sellers, “The blasphemy of Franklin Graham,” Baptist News Global, January 18, 2021, https://baptistnews.com/article/the-blasphemy-of-franklin-graham/#.YAyJw-hKhO8.

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