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Tim Jones: The Limits of Vague Prayers

Does prayer change things? Or us? Or both?

The Limits of Vague Prayers

Jul 4, 06:58 PM

"I’m not the kind of person," a friend recently shared with me, "who prays for specific things." She typically has prayed that God help her get through the day, that she will have strength to meet each challenge. And with her having recently lost her husband to cancer, such prayers have meant a great deal.

But something happened the other day that nudged her into a different approach. "I came across some troubling stuff that my son had written on a facebook page," she recounted. She felt terrible. "I began praying that day," she recalls, "‘God, please bring a man into my son’s life.’" She wanted for him a male presence, a mentor, now that her husband and his father were gone. She turned her fervent desire into a prayer.

However emotionally understandable my friend’s request might appear, such praying doesn’t make sense to some, as I’ve mentioned here before. It seems so childlike, even primitive.

Broad, expansive prayers? Sure! Prayer for, well, world peace? Of course.

But particular things? As my colleague and friend Leigh Spruill puts it in a recent blog, "to pray about personal finances in a month when it seems impossible to pay all the bills, to pray for a specific issue in one’s marriage, these seem to be audacious, if not presumptuous." Even to pray for provision for a son newly bereft of his dad—might it not, by its very concreteness, leave us in the position of telling God what to do? Talking and asking and interrupting God when, as the TV show used to put it, "Father Knows Best"?

Jesus did pray, it is true, in his garden of Gethsemane agony "Not my will, but yours, be done." And he urged us to pray in similar fashion: "Your will be done." Paul the apostle, as I’ve noted in a sermon I’ve written to preach soon, prayed "three times" that his "thorn in the flesh"—some ailment or harassment from a group of antagonists—be removed.

So yes, there’s that intellectual side to the argument against specific prayers.

And then there's our own can-do drive. I find that for me the reluctance comes not so much from philosophical questioning, but a kind of unspoken assumption that if I can do something, if I want something, if something cries out for action and attention, well, I will just do it, or get it. Why ask when, thank you very much, I can do just fine on my own?

But my friend’s story reminds me of another angle: How God hears.

For that very evening, the evening of the day she prayed, something caught her attention. "A friend I’ve known for years," she told me, her eyes big with a kind of newly convinced wonder, "called and asked my son out for lunch." They went, and the two bonded. They plan to keep meeting. The man even began giving the teen-age boy part-time work. And he stays in touch.

A specific thing, indeed. Was it any accident that my friend felt free (or even prompted) to pray for that very outcome? What do you think?


comment

  1. Reflecting on your latest blog primarily made me think of the reasons why we wouldn’t offer up prayers for specific things.

    The first reason is, as Leigh put it, that it may seem remarkably bold and presumptious. The idea that God has much better things to deal with that my petty issues is not hard to see. Linked to that is the concept that we are being selfish when we ask for something specific for ourselves and many of us try not to act in a selfish manner, which may create a psychological barrier to a specific and personal prayer.

    The last main objections to this kind of prayer, at a deeply personal level, may be the fear of disappointment. When we offer up a prayer to God for something specific and personal, the ghost of doubt can creep in. What if He doesn’t listen? What if He doesn’t answer? What if He doesn’t care? How could I possibly handle rejection by my Creator?

    Doubt can be hard to face and some may be more inclined to avoid the situation that may inspire doubt and so, rather than offer that prayer to God and risk questioning their faith when the prayer seems to go unanswered, an individual may choose to not offer the prayer at all, using one of the other reasons as a cover.

    From an entirely personal perspective, I consider my prayers to be requests and, of course, subject to His will and His plan, which are necessarily hidden from me. That He doesn’t seem to answer my prayer doesn’t always mean that He hasn’t. It just means that He is taking into account far more factors than I could ever see or hope to understand.

    After all, He has answered some of my prayers in the most unexpected yet delightful ways so it is no great leap for me to understand that He may, at times, not be catering my immediate desire, but has worked to grant me my greater need. (Yes, I just paraphrased Marcia King from her sermon today, but it was a good lesson).

    As Cowper wrote:

    ‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform’.

    Or, for a Biblical reference;

    Isaiah 55:8-9 (KJV)

    For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
    For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    Thank you, Tim, for another thought provoking blog.

    Rick Backhouse · Jul 5, 09:16 PM · #

  2. Tim+,
    This is a wonderful reminder. I’m often tempted (and succumb) to just mention a person’s name in my prayers. It’s easier than struggling with the need before the Lord. I would love to see God be more active in my life!

    Jason Ingalls · Jul 10, 06:27 PM · #

  3. Yes, Tim, I pray what I call “smart prayers”, (think smart bombs). Yes, God knows our needs even before we do, and He knows our hearts,, but He also wants to be in close relationship with Him. He is our Father and desires to talk with us about every thing.
    In John 17 Jesus prayes very specific prayers.
    Of course there are times when we pray non-specific prayers. The important thing I would always want to remember is, no matter how I pray, God hears and understands my heart and knows best for me. Jer. 29:11.
    Tim,Thank you for all of your good thoughts and teachings.
    Penny McCartney

    Penny McCartney · Jul 23, 11:54 AM · #

  4. This reminded me of a change of attitude I needed, and still benefit from. At the time I was living within a block of a busy firehouse, and when that alarm went off in the night, I was upset.
    Then one Sunday morning a minister suggested shooting prayers for those who needed help by firemen or ambulance or police, so whenever a siren goes off, pray for those needing the help, and those going to help. And it stopped my annoyance, and specically, immediately, as needed, a better use of my time went to the Lord. I’ll never know if it helps, but I know it could help.

    John Hawley · Jul 25, 03:11 PM · #