A Downside to Praying Specifically

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?


What Does Spite Look Like?

I was talking with God recently about a person who had offended me. The offense was not deeply wounding—my toes had been stepped on and there was some money involved, but really, it wasn’t a big deal. I kept telling myself that: This is not a big deal.

But then if it wasn’t a big deal, how come I couldn’t stop thinking about it?

Eventually, when the offense kept nagging at me, I reluctantly decided to pray about it. “Reluctantly,” I say, because I was embarrassed that such a small thing could consume me so.  I wished I didn’t have to admit to God how stuck I was.

But I pulled out my journal and began telling Him exactly what so-and-so had done and how angry it made me feel. My prayer was full of justifications for why it made sense for me to feel as I did. Reading over it now, I can tell you it was neither pretty nor “spiritual.” But it was honest, and I know that God desires truth in the inner places (Ps. 51:6).

After I’d poured it all out, I gave Him a chance to reply. What He said was gentle but firm: Forgive her.

Well, that’s hardly a surprise. Of course God would tell me to forgive her. The problem was, I really didn’t want to. I wasn’t proud of that, and I sure wasn’t trying to rebel against God! But despite the fact that my head agreed with God—of course I needed to forgive!—my heart was like a two-year-old about to have a tantrum.

What’s going on, Abba? Please help me! I can’t do this without your help!

His reply was immediate: What does spite look like?

An image of a woman with a permanent scowl on her face came to mind. I recognized her as someone who all her life had inwardly nursed petty offenses while saying outwardly “It’s no big deal.” If the woman had ever been attractive, she wasn’t now because her countenance was full of resentment and spite.

Oh, Father! I don’t want to look like that! I don’t want to be like that!

I immediately realized that to choose unforgiveness was also to choose resentment and spite. They are inseparable. And they have ugly consequences.

Then Father helped me to see the peace and wholeness that could be mine if I would forgive my offender and give Jesus the hurt.  My anger started to dissipate. And soon my heart joined my head in wanting to forgive her. So I did.

And they all lived happily ever after. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that, would you? So here’s the rest of the story: thoughts of the offense still return from time to time. But never as powerfully as they did before I forgave. When the thoughts come now, I remind myself that I have forgiven and I choose peace instead of spite. I ask God for help, and before long, I am peaceful again.

Moral of the story? I can’t narrow it down to just one, so here are three:

  1. Forgiveness is a spiritual power struggle which cannot be won apart from the help God offers through prayer;
  2. To choose not to forgive is to invite ugly emotions to take up residence in your heart and eventually your countenance;
  3. Pouring out your heart to God—even (especially?) when what’s inside isn’t pretty—is always the best thing you can do. God promises to give mercy and grace in your time of need (Heb. 4:16).




Grieving and Groaning with God

It’s hard to feel Christ’s peace and to act with His grace when the environment you’re in is full of negativity and contention. At least it’s hard for me. I recently spent a few days in that kind of relational setting, and it left me feeling like a spiritual failure. Instead of bringing light to the darkness, as I had prayed ahead of time to do, I felt as if the darkness sucked me in. I tried to pray, but my prayers only seemed to ricochet off the ceiling. God seemed a trillion miles away.

Later, when I was able to talk with God about it, I confessed my sense of defeat. Why did You seem so far away? I asked. Why was praying so hard? Why couldn’t I stay near You so I wouldn’t get taken out?

The Holy Spirit’s answer surprised me. What I think I heard Him say was, I was quiet but I never left you. I was quiet because I was grieving, too. You weren’t the only one who felt the oppression and sadness in that place. I went there with you; I felt it all, too.

It wasn’t news to me that the Holy Spirit has emotions. As a Person, He, like the rest of the godhead, feels. I knew that He can be quenched (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieved (Eph. 4:30).  But I’d never thought about Him being grieved by the same things, at the same time, as I was grieved. Who knows? Perhaps the grief I was feeling didn’t even originate with me—maybe its source was the Spirit in me!

At any rate, I felt His consolation as I pondered this idea. There is something comforting about having someone to cry with. The Holy Spirit’s grief validated the grief I was feeling. It didn’t change circumstances, but it made me realize that feeling what I was feeling (instead of peace and joy) was appropriate in God’s eyes.

I asked the Holy Spirit how to avoid missing Him when I encounter similar challenging situations in the future. Romans 8:26 came to mind: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).

I realized that I had seemed to be missing God in that situation because I’d been looking for the wrong thing. I was thinking that somehow if I were truly in step with the Him that all would seem right with the world. But the world I was in most definitely did not seem right. What the Holy Spirit seemed to be telling me was that it was not right with Him, either. Why should I think I should be feeling perfect peace when He was grieving and groaning?

I had jumped the gun. I had been trying to be content in whatever situation I found myself in (Phil 4:11)—and bypass anything that felt yucky. But that’s not how Jesus does it (e.g. Isa. 53:3, Lk. 19:41, Jn. 11:35, Heb. 5:7). And it’s not how the Holy Spirit does it. So why should I try to do it that way?

It seems that the Holy Spirit is inviting me to groan and grieve with Him when circumstances call for it. Those groans become prayers of intercession, Him praying in me, for me, and through me in my weakness. I’d rather pray prayers of joy and thanksgiving. But sometimes nights of weeping must precede mornings of joy (Ps. 30:5).

What about you? I’d love to hear from those of you who have grieved and groaned your prayers to God in the company of the Holy Spirit. What was that kind of praying like for you?

The Most Important Prayer of All

What is the single most important thing we could ever pray as Christians? Please resist the temptation to read ahead. Indulge me, and take a few minutes and actually  think about it. What would your answer be?

If you were to ask a dozen believers that question you’d probably get a dozen different answers. I first encountered the question a month or so ago when my small group was working through James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful Community. In it, Smith quotes author and philosopher Dallas Willard’s answer: “The most important task we have, especially for those in church leadership, is to pray for the success of our neighboring churches.”

I have to be honest—my small group protested. While most of us agreed that it might be a good idea to pray for churches around us, no one wanted to commit to saying it was the most important thing to pray for. Furthermore, the idea of praying for other ministries doesn’t usually even cross our minds. So after that brief discussion, I, at least, didn’t give the idea much more thought.

Then last week during our daily prayer time at Community Bible Study where I work (www.communitybiblestudy.org), someone caught my attention with her prayer. She asked God to bless other ministries similar to ours, whose purpose is to disciple people in the Word of God. She listed several ministries by name, including ones that might even be considered “competitors” if we were to think in those terms. (Nobody wants to think in those terms—but be honest! Don’t we sometimes?)

Well, God had my attention now. Here was a colleague who was actually doing what Willard had suggested. Instead of praying only for our ministry’s needs, she was praying for God to bless and prosper other ministries that do the same Kingdom work. I was touched. And humbled. And challenged. Maybe I need to pay more attention to this idea.

And so this week, Passion Week, I have been meditating on the lengthy prayer Jesus prayed the night before He died. You’re probably familiar with it; it’s found in John 17. Several themes run throughout the prayer, the most prominent one being about unity. Jesus prayed in a variety of different ways, “that [believers] may be one as we are one” (v. 11). The night before He died there are many things Jesus could have petitioned His Father about—but foremost in His mind, it seems, was that His followers would get along and work and live together harmoniously.

So maybe Willard isn’t being too extreme when he enjoins us so strongly to pray for other ministries. At any rate, I know that when I’ve started trying it, my heart becomes more humble and hopeful. I become less distracted by things that seem to me to be weaknesses and faults in other ministries because I am putting them in the Lord’s hands and He can mature them according to His will. And I can genuinely rejoice (and not be envious) when God blesses another church or Christian organization.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this type of praying. Have you ever prayed for the megachurch in your community that seems to be “stealing sheep”? How about denominations that you disagree with? Or the church that wounded you? Or maybe you pray for all the churches in your small town. Anyone want to experiment with it for a month and then share what happened with us on this blog?