I first heard it from my dad more than a decade ago. I was still in primary school. My dad rammed this prayer into my head until it became a permanent part of my memory. No, my dad was not born again, and he was not teaching me this prayer because he wanted me to be more pious. His reasons were different. My dad admired and pedestaled this prayer because it was a revealing prayer. It revealed the hypocrisy in many Christians. The words in the prayer indicated zero self-focus and total God-focus – Something that my father did not see in the professing Christians around him. It was a difficult prayer to live out, and I guess that’s why my dad loved it so much and made sure I memorized it. Here it is:
Oh LORD, If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.
A PERFECT PRAYER
It’s obvious that this prayer expresses an other-worldly attitude of selflessness. It’s true that many people are “Christians” because they do not want to end up in hell. Others are Christians because the images they’ve been fed of heaven titillate their carnal cravings. Very few (if any) of us worship God for who He is. For a long time, I was persuaded that there was no prayer more profound than this one. Not even the Lord’s Prayer came close. Yet, something always bothered me about the prayer. It was an impossible prayer. What appeared to be a perfect prayer was actually a perfectionist prayer. It was a dangerous prayer. I never really prayed it. Whenever I examine my heart, there are always some strings attached in my relationship with God. My prayers and acts of worship are tainted with both explicit and subtle selfish aims. As apostle Paul once remarked;
“I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” [Rom 7:21]
WORSHIPING GOD FOR GOD’S SAKE
Later on, I realized that even though I had elevated this prayer and placed it on such a high pedestal, there’s an important element of the prayer that I never bothered to question. What does it mean to worship God for His own sake? This the question, though unanswered, was actually the most important aspect of the prayer above. To worship God for His own sake means to worship God as He really is. And to worship God as He really is means that one must first get to know this God. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to us. God has revealed Himself as the creator and sustainer of the universe. But this is not all. The Bible reveals God as Savior and Redeemer of a world imprisoned in sin and the effects of sin. To worship God for His own sake is to worship God, not just as creator and keeper, but also as the redeemer of the world.
FREEDOM IN CHRIST
So you see, while the prayer above was indeed impressive, it was also imprisoning. I don’t want to tell God to take me to hell because I am worshiping Him for the fear of hell. The truth is that I am afraid of hell, and part of the reason why I worship God is because I do not want to end up there. This may not be the main reason for my worship, but it is part of it. If this makes me sinful, then I am headed to hell, for I cannot perfectly not mix my worship with my fear hell. On the other hand, I want to go to heaven, and I admit that to some extent, I worship God for the hope of paradise. If this means that I am disqualified for paradise, then I am hopeless.
But the good news is that I do know God for who He is. And of all the things that God is, He is also my Savior. Through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, God has redeemed me from the curse of my sin. He has redeemed me from the power and penalty of my ever-sinful ways. I am free in Christ. This means that even if sometimes I worship God for the fear of hell, I will not end up there. It means that even if sometimes I worship God for the hope of paradise, He will not exclude me from paradise. This prayer that I learnt from my dad was profound. It was impressive. But it was also an imprisoning prayer. It disregarded the saving grace of God, and for that reason, it was a false prayer.
PS: Just last year, I Googled the words of the prayer only to discover that it was written/said by an ascetic female Sufi (Muslim) mystic called Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (717 – 801 A.D.).