The habit of praising and thanking God before asking Him for something used to trouble me. It smacked of insincerity, hypocrisy, and (attempted) manipulation. As if we believed in a Deity who demanded to be placated before deigning to grant us a boon.
Especially in certain denominations, too, there's a time-honored tradition of praying with some very particular linguistic patterns. It's been pointed out that f we talked that way to each other, it would sound something like this:
Mom, I just wanna praise you and thank you for your goodness, for all you do. You're so good to me, I just wanna thank you and praise you, and mom, if you could find it in your heart, mom, to give me twenty dollars to go to the mall with my friend, mom, I would be deeply grateful. Praise you, Mom!
And so on.
The template for prayer, in some circles, seems to be: step one--extravagant, over-emotional flattery; step two--more flattery; step three--once you've softened the Deity up sufficiently--get to the point.
Fundamentalist verbal patterns and buzzwords are easy to make fun of, but what about something more traditional--like the Hail Mary?
Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee (flattery). Blessed art thou amongst women (more flattery), and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus (MORE flattery). Holy Mary, Mother of God (still laying it on thick), pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death (Gimme)
I'm not saying this is the true nature of the Ave Maria! Just that there's a certain superficial similarity there.
You could see the Our Father the same way:
Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven (flattery)
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses (now we get to the point)
As we forgive those who trespass against us (this sounds good, but maybe it's just pro forma, to soften up the Giver?)
...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (more gimme)
It may sound silly, but I suspect I'm not the only one who used to labor under this misconception. There are at least a couple of answers to this false dilemma:
First of all, asking for something is not necessarily selfish. We're literally commanded to ask for what we need. Petition may be the lowest form of prayer (running fourth behind adoration, contrition and thanksgiving), but it's still prayer. Reluctance to really believe this could be a symptom of a God-as-Boss-Man mentality: imagining that He doesn't take a personal interest in our happiness and needs to be placated or tricked into serving our interests. Asking is an expression of trust, in both the Giver's power to do something about our problems and His desire to do so.
Secondly, praising and thanking can, after all, be sincere! It need not be a silly attempt to flatter the Almighty, who would inevitably see through it anyhow. Praising and thanking could even be construed as "selfish"--if that's the word--in the sense that it can strengthen our faith to fix our attention on the way God really is as glorious and powerful as we're making Him out to be. It can help us make our requests with confidence.
But I think the whole problem really stems from a radical misunderstanding of relations among persons. If we see our dealings with God as a transaction instead of a meeting, a communion, among persons--I give Him Quantity X of flattery and he reciprocates with Desired Result Y--then we're missing the point more thoroughly than any hypocrite. It's a competitive, zero-sum way of looking at the whole thing which will never get us to any kind of loving union with God.