A commonly taught “rule” of prayer goes something like this: “You should pray specifically because if you don’t, how will you ever know when God answers?” It’s a valid point, to be sure. If you merely ask God to bless the missionaries or a friend’s marriage or the president of your country, you may never notice when or how God does that. The prayer is too vague.
But I’m starting to realize that while there are definitely times when praying specifically is critical (see Mark 10:51), at other times, praying specifically can actually limit God. Remember the story of the disciples and the hungry multitude (John 6:5-15)? Jesus asked Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Not realizing that Jesus was testing him, Philip could only see a practical, human answer to the problem: We need money, and lots of it! If Philip were to have prayed specifically about the situation, he probably would have prayed for a boatload of money to buy everyone Chick-fil-A, or its Galilean equivalent. That would have been a specific prayer request. But that prayer also would have missed the much bigger thing God wanted to do.
Sometimes my prayers are like that. I can be so near-sighted, earth-bound—and specific!—that I ask for much less than what God is willing to do. A while ago I was in a soul-wearying situation that dragged on day-in and day-out for several years. Of course I prayed about it, and you can be sure that I prayed specifically. I asked God to do specific things and influence specific people and give me specific graces. They weren’t bad prayers, and God graciously answered many of them. However, the overall situation didn’t change much. One day a friend asked me, “Cynthia, do you ever ask God to rescue you?”
I was flummoxed. No, I had never asked God for that. Oddly enough, it had never even occurred to me. I had just assumed that, in an effort to grow me in Christ-like character, God might want to keep me in that tough situation indefinitely. And besides that, what would “rescue” even look like?
But I realized that my friend’s question was actually an invitation from God. The Holy Spirit reminded me of the many “Rescue me!” psalms (22, 25, 31, 35, 43, etc.) and urged me to take the risk and pray this very general, very big, very vulnerable request. So, without giving God any parameters for what His rescue should look like, I simply asked Him to rescue me.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that within a short period of when I started praying that way, God made an out-of-the-blue rescue that I never would have dreamed of. It was bigger and better than all my previous prayer requests—and even though it was not specific, I had no question whatsoever that He had answered.
So, should we pray specifically or generally? I’d have to say “It depends.” Sometimes we pray for “our daily bread” and other times we pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done.” There is a place for both types of requests, and I’m learning that the Holy Spirit is more than glad to help us when we don’t know what to pray (Romans 8:26-27).
I’d love to hear from you: What are your thoughts and experiences with general and specific prayer?