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?



11 thoughts on “A Downside to Praying Specifically

  1. Debbie Wood says:

    I am reminded of the first chapter of Ole Hallesby’s book on prayer where he says that helplessness is the first step in prayer. I often find that if I start with that realization, God is pleased to “show up” and interact with me. However, my helplessness does not preclude me “talking things over” with Him to see if He wants to impress on me specifics on how I should be praying and acting in the circumstance.

    • cbezek says:

      Isn’t helplessness really a sign of our dependence on Him, our desire to abide in Him? But as we abide in Him and His words abide in us, we can ask whatever we wish and it will be done for us. Now there’s a powerful thought! Just another of God’s paradoxes–helplessness leads to power! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Debbie. (I miss you!)

  2. Carolyn Bloomfield says:

    For me your article was very relevent and timely. Suffering with back and leg pain that often wakens me up during the night and forced me into a recliner. I just wanted to sleep the night through. I wished often that I could just see Jesus face to face and ask Him to help me. I am sure the Holy Spirit brought to my mind blind Bartimaus. I remembered Jesus said to him “What would you have me do?” That night when I laid down in bed, I prayed saying you asked Bartimaus what he wanted you to do and and I believe you can ask me the same thing. Would you please let me sleep the night through without waking up in pain? I fell asleep and did not wake up until the next morning. Same prayer following two nights and full nights sleep. Next night, i was really tired and neglected to ask and I woke up during the night. Just a reminder from my Heavenly Father to not take His answers for granted.

    • cbezek says:

      That’s a wonderful example of the Lord leading you to pray very specifically! Thank you for sharing your story and God’s goodness! (and good to hear from you, Carolyn!)

  3. Polly says:

    Recently when I was praying “but deliver us from the evil one.” The Lord assured me he was answering that general prayer. I had felt overwhelmed with the amount of deception I was discovering in some situations, but I realized then that things weren’t out of control, but that God was deliberately shining his light in the darkness, delivering us from the evil one. It looked very different than I expected.

    So when you pray “your kingdom come, your will be done” is whatever happens then God’s will, and our part is to submit to his apparent will? Or is it more like ” here I am, send me”? I guess I am asking is that a passive prayer of acceptance or an active prayer of sign me up? I hope this makes sense 🙂

    • cbezek says:

      Polly, I so appreciate your question–and yes, I think I understand. I have some thoughts, but I’d like to ponder them a bit before answering. Maybe I’ll blog on it next week. Stay tuned!

  4. pastordennisking says:

    I really appreciate your article. As I grow in my experience of prayer, I find that I am usually pretty specific about my need or desire but perhaps less specific about how I think God should answer. For instance, I’ve been praying for months about a specific situation to change in my ministry, but I’m asking the Lord to please change it in His time and His way.

  5. knoxwelland says:

    Your comment in answering this question, “it depends”, is very insightful. This is why I try to get myself to that place in prayer where I can see or hear how the Lord is already praying for a situation (since He lives to intercede). When I hear or see what He is praying, I take that as my invitation to join Him in praying His will. That is why prayer can either be specific or general. Its all about listening in prayer. Thanks Cynthia.

    • cbezek says:

      Absolutely, Bernie. Listening prayer is critical to knowing how to pray! Thanks for making that point.

      • steve says:

        There used to be times when I’d run into someone and s/he would ask for prayer for the release of his/her family member who’d been arrested by the police for something. Rather than say “I’ll pray for them” I prefer to stop and pray with my friend right then and there. The first times I’d get those requests, I’d pray generally by asking for “God’s will to be done” because if God was intending to work on that guy while he is in prison/jail, then I shouldn’t pray against what God is doing (and praying for his release might be doing that).
        From Romans 8:26, I can trust the Holy Spirit to intercede when what I’m praying for in my limited human knowledge falls short (which is always) of what God wants to accomplish. Prayer is an act of faith, bringing our hearts before Almighty God and actively (not passively) pursuing His glory. So now I will go ahead and pray for the specifics that my friend has requested.
        The most important thing, other than bringing our requests before God, is ministering to the friend by praying alongside them with big, bold prayers to our Heavenly Father. How God answers is entirely up to Him, but I can trust that He is faithful to accomplish what He intends to do. Personally, I love Isaiah 26:8 “Yes, LORD, walking in the way of Your truth we wait eagerly for You, for Your name and Your renown are the desire of our souls.”

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