Here is an excerpt from “Prayer: Experiencing God,” a sermon on Psalm 27:4 that I preached on December 28, 2014. You can listen to the whole thing here.

You might remember the scene from Disney’s Aladdin, in the cave, when the Genie comes out of the lamp and he sings, “You ain’t never had a friend like me!” Why? Because he grants Aladdin 3 wishes!

But David [here in Ps. 27] wants not mainly what God can give him; but God himself. Prayer is so many things—and it is good to ask him for things; please hear me on that. But if you had to ask me in one sentence what prayer is fundamentally, it’s this: prayer is primarily experiencing God himself.

We often treat prayer more like requesting a genie than relating to God. Don’t you find yourself often defaulting to asking God for things—health, money, success, someone else’s salvation, maturity for your children, understanding and wisdom for a situation. Like Aladdin, we come to God like a genie only making requests.

This isn’t a modern problem for our consumeristic society. It’s been this way for thousands of years. In the fifth century, St. Augustine wrote a letter to a Roman noblewoman named Proba. In that letter, Augustine guides Proba (and us) to understand two things: 1) what kind of person we must be if we are to pray and 2) what we must pray for.

What Kind of Person You Must Be
Augustine said that when we pray we must recognize that we are desolate in this world. In other words, no matter how great our lives are here on earth, we can never find true life in temporal things: security, wealth, health, power, etc. Augustine says that we have “disordered loves.” As sinners, we love things first that should be second, third, fourth, or one-hundred and fourth on our love list. We desire success, prosperity, security, love, approval or something else above God. How do we know if this is the case? If we love professional or personal prosperity, we may cry out to God for help when prosperity is threatened or when there is an opportunity for gain. But if we don’t achieve the level of prosperity we want, our prayers will not bring joy and comfort and healing. We won’t experience God as our true prosperity. We won’t believe that we have enough with God alone. Our prayers will only bring anxiety and despair.

What You Should Pray For
Augustine goes on. Once we recognize that we are desolate, Augustine tells Proba to “Pray for a happy life” which means: you get what you want and you don’t get what you don’t want. This sounds a lot like making God a genie, but it’s not.

He says that if someone gets something they want (health or a good job, for example), this person may not have a happy life. Why? Augustine says, ”They have—it is true—something which is quite becoming to desire; but if they have not other things which are greater, better, and more full both of utility and beauty, they are still far short of possessing a happy life” (Letter 130, paragraph 11).

What Augustine means is that if we spend our lives only pursuing temporal things, we’re wasting our life. His conclusion is to go to our passage, Psalm 27:4, and he says, “We love God, therefore, for what He is in Himself” (Letter 130, paragraph 14). If you want happiness, you must get God himself. You may get everything on your laundry list and you may think you are experiencing God, but if you don’t have God as your “one thing,” you won’t have a happy life. You won’t even have a true prayer life.

Ultimately, this psalm is showing us that if you have God—even if you have everything you could want or if you have no wealth or status in the whole world—you have enough. David doesn’t ask God for things. Can you say with David like he does in another place, Psalm 73:25-26, “Whom have I have in heaven but you, and there is nothing on earth that I desire beside you? My flesh and my heart my fail, but you are the strength of my heart and my portion forever”?

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