Should we pray for things that are within our control or that we can accomplish ourselves (e.g. working harder, being more patient, or being more disciplined)?
Many years ago, a South African immigrant to America (Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s mother, to be specific) asked a friend to pick up some strawberry jelly for her at the store. When the friend delivered the requested jars of jelly, the immigrant was confused. She was actually asking for a Jello type dessert mix, but in America jelly means something quite different.
Among the words prone to misunderstanding, prayer ranks rather high. We are often exposed to the idea of praying to God as children, yet what exactly we are doing needs constant refinement and growing awareness as we mature.
In ancient Jewish wisdom, prayer is made up of three components: recognizing and praising God; making requests; and acknowledging and thanking God for what we have. Unfortunately, some of us confuse prayer with begging. As we explained in our chapter on the Hebrew word for prayer in our book, Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language,
“Begging is an act of self-centeredness: I have a need so I am asking you to take care of my need. You are only a facilitator for what I want. Unlike begging, prayer requires us to find a way to emerge from our self-centeredness.”
You are correctly recognizing that prayer is the opposite of begging. Anything is possible with your effort and God’s help. You are absolutely correct that lying in bed until 10 in the morning while praying to God for economic success would be ridiculous. It is harder to see but equally ridiculous to think that our hard work will automatically define our success. Nothing is completely in our control. We need to both ask God to bless our endeavors and also to take action and work on ourselves. The two go together; they are not an either/or choice.
You can and certainly should ask God to help you overcome impatience, laziness, meanness, or any other character flaw. At the same time you need to create and implement a plan that will move you in the right direction. When you are successful even in a small way, thank God for giving you the strength to do what you needed to do and give yourself a pat on the back as well.
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin