Daniel was a spoil of war. Captured in his youth and likely orphaned by the conflict, he had spent his entire adult life interned in the royal court of Babylon, fifteen hundred kilometres from his Jerusalem home. Daniel had every reason to become bitter, desperate, and selfish in his prayers to a God who seemed not to hear.
It was 539 B.C. and Darius the Mede led the conquering Medo-Persians to overtake the Babylonian empire. Daniel would was now in his seventies or eighties and likely felt as hopeful for the new government as many present-day Syrians feel about ISIS’ attempts to overthrow dictator Bashar al-Assad. It seemed like a no-win situation.
But listen to Daniel’s prayer, recorded in the biblical book by his name.
“Now, our God,” he implores, “hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor… For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your … people bear your name” (Dan. 9:17-19).
It’s an interesting and important observation to make of Daniel’s prayer. He’s not pleading with God to do something for him because he wants an easier life. It’s not a whim or even a well-thought out petition for blessing that causes Daniel to pray. It’s not a request for Daniel himself, for his friends or family, or even for God to dispose of Daniel’s captors. Daniel is praying for God’s own sake.
If you’re like me, that’s a hard notion to wrap one’s head around—prayer as petition for God to do what’s good for God. Stop and think about that for a minute. Let’s not personify God as if He would act like we do when we are looking out for ourselves. Selfishness in us is ugly; it motivates us to do all sorts of harmful and foolish things, because we are limited in goodness and wisdom, so we don’t always desire good and wise outcomes.
But God is infinitely good and wise. So when He takes action to accomplish His own purposes, to act for His own sake, He is creating infinitely good and wise situations. He is following through on His ultimate plan to express His glory in an unlimited way among His creatures. What’s good for God, then, is good for us.
Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived in France from 1090-1153, thought deeply about this idea. He was thinking of it in terms of love. He described four ‘degrees of love’, calling one of the degrees ‘love of God for God’s sake’. He was contrasting the mature God-oriented love that is the goal for God-followers, with our earlier juvenile love, which was more focused on what He could do for us. See the difference? The good Saint Bernard saw a deeper motivation for loving God than just the selfish one. He saw a love where we long for God to have His way in His created world and in His purposes because He deserves it. God ought, by all views of morality, to have His will be done because that is the fulfillment of all ultimate good.
“We have obtained this degree,” observes Bernard, “when we can say, “Give praise to the Lord for he is good, not because he is good to me, but because he is good.” Thus we truly love God for God’s sake and not for our own. The third degree of love is the love by which God is now loved for his very self.”
Praying upon God to act in our lives and in our world for His own sake is the heart attitude and verbalization of loving God for his very self. I’m not sure we accomplish it overly well in this life. We’re on a journey of learning to love God and communicate better with Him little by little, day by day, more and more. But it’s a step worth taking for those of us who, as Daniel said, “bear (God’s) name” and those who long to bear it well. Let’s begin to pray by saying, “For your sake, O Lord…”