When traveling by air, passengers are taught that in the case of an emergency where the oxygen masks deploy, adults should ALWAYS put on their masks first before assisting their children. Why? Because the assistance given to those children depends directly upon the well being of the adults. There is an important insight here for the spiritual life: to be of any use to others, you need to be right yourself. This insight is also taught in scripture.
Periodically, I hear Christians say things that seem to imply that praying for others is somehow greater than praying for themselves. But this is misguided. It is contrary to Christ’s clear teaching in the Gospels. He says that the greatest commandment of all is, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the GREATEST and FIRST commandment.” (Matt 22:38) So let’s unpack that. If you do not love the Lord, your God, with ALL your heart, soul and mind – and let’s be honest here, who does? – then your FIRST and GREATEST responsibility is to pray for your OWN conversion. End of discussion. Period. Hard stop. The Lord has spoken.
Then Jesus goes on to say that the second great commandment is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:39) This second commandment is predicated upon the first. If you don’t properly love yourself by loving God with everything you’ve got, then you simply cannot love your neighbor properly.
Christian believers who don’t pray for themselves are not being selfless. They are either being disobedient or stupid. Until we are perfect when it comes to the first commandment, then that must always be our starting point. Love of neighbor is absolutely essential, but it always flows from the first. Otherwise, what you think is love of neighbor may not actually be love of neighbor. It may very well be a misguided sort of love, misguided because you don’t properly love God yet and you’re not really trying.