The Problem With Prayer Requests

The other day I was weeding the garden and I found two $1 bills stirring in the breeze, caught under the potato plants like fidgety birds. Immediately I knew whose they were: our youngest daughter, 3-year-old Abra, had been carrying those things around with her all morning. She must have left them in the garden when she had been banished there with her older siblings to remove potato bugs from our potato plants.

I shook my head and smiled. $2. No big deal. But I certainly wouldn’t be giving her a $50 bill to tote around anytime soon.

Then I wondered, Is that why God doesn’t give me money? Is it because I would be irresponsible with it? I quickly realized this was my works-based, Anabaptist doppelganger making an appearance. Plenty of irresponsible people are rich. Plenty of frugal, responsible people don’t have two dollar bills to rub together.

Yet so many people ask God for more money. Why aren’t those prayers answered?

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Sometimes we get what we ask for; other times we do not. Some people explain this by pointing out how strong (or not) the asker’s faith is. Other people simply believe that if you ask for something that happens to fall within the will of God, then you get what you asked for. Still others think you have to want it badly enough, or pray often enough, or be pure enough.

So much confusion regarding prayer requests. So much legalism and bad theology.

I think the problem with prayers is not found in the asking – the problem with prayers is when it becomes only about asking. Recently I posted about my daughter Lucy’s confusion that, even though she prayed every night, God was not healing her terribly itchy bumps. My friend Jason had an interesting comment:

This is part of a huge paradigmatic problem in evangelical Christianity if you ask me and I also believe it is changing. So what should we tell our children? I guess not leading them to believe that a prayer is like a request to mom or dad for something but more like when mom or dad holds your hand.

Wow. I suddenly realized that in so many ways I was teaching my kids that God is that person in the sky you only go to when something is wrong and you want it fixed. While I will always encourage them to pray, about anything, for anything, I want to somehow convey this message that Jason is talking about – prayer is more about connecting with the peace and grace and joy that God has to offer, whatever the circumstances, even through the circumstances, than it is about creating a checklist and making sure you mention everything before falling asleep.

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Remember my daughter Lucy’s itchy bumps she was praying for? Remember her question that night, while Maile was putting cream on her bumps?

“Momma, why isn’t God healing my bumps? We pray for them every night.”

They’re gone now, the bumps. They hung around much longer than any of us wanted. And I feel like I missed an opportunity to teach her about the true meaning of prayer. Next time it won’t only be about the request – next time it will be more like holding God’s hand.

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What do you think about prayer requests?

7 Replies to “The Problem With Prayer Requests”

  1. Prayer isn’t a checklist, but Jesus does teach us to ask for what we need. Miracles are opportunities for God to reveal His love, not be a gum ball machine for trinkets. Some faithful, but poor families are satisfied to display God’s love with nothing more.

    Some well-to-do families (which by global standards is most of us in the U.S.A.) either don’t think about God’s role in our provision at all or believe we deserve to be blessed. God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust. Some day we will all answer for what He has given: materially, spiritually and otherwise.

  2. Prayer is a wonderful way of connecting to God. Jesus through his death on the cross has made a way for anybody to talk to the Father. What a spectacular opportunity we have to communicate to an all powerful, all knowing, and all loving God. If we are asking Him for a specific request or if we are appreciating Him for who He is and all he has done, God takes great joy in our petitions to Him. It means that we are making time for Him in our lives and wanting a relationship with Him. We are not shutting Him out of our busy lives but having a time of communion with Him. I think He loves our prayer requests and all of our asking. He may not always think our request are wise or have been thought out but he always pours out His grace. Sure it may be a little shallow to always go to God asking for everything but who better to go to for help. He will sort out what is good for us and what will harm us and He will answer accordingly. Too many times we ask God to do something for us when He has in mind to teach us something. I am guilty of asking God to answer a prayer and begging Him to come through so that I can be rescued. God has other plans, He may want me to learn valuable lessons of trust and dependence upon Him. Keep asking and go ahead keep talking to Him about everything no matter how trivial or insignificant. Trust His sovereignty and know that He delights in us.

  3. I just looked at most of the prayers Paul prays in his letters. I only found two occasions where he prays for circumstances and they were both about him visiting the church. The rest of the time he was more concerned with the Church’s growth, love, knowledge, and maturity. Good post shawn!

  4. [I think this is a safe place to confess this…]

    I teach in a Christian high school…and I don’t take prayer requests. Most of my colleagues do–at least during first period. But I stopped, because it turned into a long list of tests to pray for, grandparents with blood tests, hurt ankles, and (my favorite–note sarcasm) prayers to win that evening’s sporting event. (Once, the specific wording was “please pray that we crush ______ in the football game tonight.”)

    I’m grateful for your blog (and Jason’s words) because I haven’t been able to explain why I don’t open the floor for requests and praises. It remains this uncomfortable Christianese elephant in the room. This gives me something to think through to set the scene for how we can pray in a way that invites God to be WITH us….

  5. “Prayer requests” are self-referential (even when they swear they’re not) and only the very first rung on the ladder of spiritual development.

  6. I really like the conclusion you’ve drawn about how to talk to your kids about prayer next time around (or ongoing). I make the same mistake, too — and my kids end up conflating God and Santa Claus. I am trying now to focus on helping them look for God’s presence in the everyday — we keep a gratitude journal on the kitchen counter. Mostly I list God sightings — the meadowlark with the bright yellow breast, etc. — but occasionally one of the boys will jot a God sighting in the journal. Noah’s last one was lime popsicles — and I have to agree, a gift from God indeed!

    On a more somber note…when my mother-in-law was dying last year, I prayed a lot, but I realized at one point that I never asked God outright to cure her. It wasn’t that I thought he couldn’t cure her…I simply assumed that he wouldn’t. And I think I was afraid to venture into that place of vulnerability, where I literally begged God for a cure. Instead, I danced around it by praying for “courage, hope, strength and healing.”

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