Gary Habermas offers a thought experiment to help us examine our motives concerning what we’re asking God for in prayer:
[In his book Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing,] Peter Kreeft proposes a thought experiment in order to assist believers in determining [their] motives. What would we say if God offered us whatever we most wanted in life? What would we take if, whatever it was, it was ours for the asking? Would it be wealth? Power? Honor? How about peace of mind? But while you are thinking it over, God goes on to explain that there is only one thing you may not choose. You will never see His face.
What would our response be to this declaration? Would you be secretly satisfied to take one of the many other treasures, or would you be emotionally crushed by the last condition? Where do your true desires lie? Do you desire God and His Kingdom above all else? Such an experiment might help to provide an answer to the question of our secret desires and our ultimate motivation.
James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” This isn’t to say that when we don’t receive a particular thing we’ve asked for, the explanation is always wrong motives (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 for an example of where this was not the case), but it does serve as a good reminder about prayer.
Here’s a question to consider as you pray: Are your prayers oriented toward God and His Kingdom? Is that thing you’re praying for a means by which you may know, love, and serve God Himself, or is God merely the means you’re using to get that thing?
By considering this question, you may find you’re praying for something you shouldn’t be asking for. But there’s another possible—and far more exciting—outcome: you might simply increase your awareness of how the good things of this world exist for the glory of God.
For example, maybe you’ve been praying for a spouse without having thought through how marriage is a picture of the union of Christ with His church, how when a husband loves his wife “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,” when he “loves his own wife even as himself,” and when the wife “respects her husband,” together their relationship shows their neighbors who Christ is.
Or perhaps you’re praying about your need for a car, and as you consider the above question, you think of the many ways you will use that car to serve your neighbor and care for your family, “that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
If we always considered our prayer requests this way, I think it would transform not only what we ask for, but also how we see everything we’re given.