You'd have thought I'd just cussed by the way the mouths around the table soundlessly fell open. And all I'd said was "I don't think I can pray that for you."
The woman who had just asked us to pray was perhaps the most shocked of all.
My home group had just finished eating dinner, and we were sharing prayer requests. With obvious distress, Kris had told of her daughter's plan to move in with a boyfriend that weekend, and asked us to pray that God wouldn't allow it.
I usually try not to take exception to people's prayer requests, but I have a low tolerance for requests I think God clearly will not answer. On this occasion, I didn't keep quiet.
Once they all caught their breath, I explained. "I think all of us here can understand why you want God to stop her from doing that. If anyone here feels that's what God wants, you're free to pray that way. I'm wondering, however, whether asking God to override someone's ability to make moral choices isn't akin to witchcraft."
I could see Kris was near seething at my bluntness, so I hurried on. "What I suggest we pray for is that God would reveal himself to your daughter. That he would let her see clearly the choice she is making. And that God will show you how to trust him and love your daughter, even if she makes the stupidest mistake of her young life."
I had hardly finished before Kris blurted out through tears, "That's exactly what I need."
We gathered around her to pray. Instead of praying for the situation not to take a distressing turn, we prayed for Kris. What could have been a sympathetic but shallow exercise in prayer became a marvelous discovery of how God works in difficult situations.
At most prayer meetings a host of requests are made, then a handful of people offer quick prayers until the list is covered. Rarely do we stop to ask if a particular prayer request is in line with what God is doing. Rarely do we follow up to find out if God answered.
We are often left praying a list of wishes, as though if we throw enough darts at the balloons on the wall, we're bound to hit one of them.
My young son awakened me to the folly of this. We were reading John 15 one morning for a family devotion when he suddenly blurted out, "That's not true!" I had just read the verse about God giving us whatever we ask of him. But my five-year-old was already aware that most of what we prayed for as a family didn't happen. I wondered if our prayer practices were teaching him, whether we liked it or not, that prayer is only wishful thinking.
While the exercise of prayer itself offers comfort for the moment, I'm afraid many prayer requests teach us to use God like a genie in a bottle. I don't want my son, or my brothers and sisters, to get that impression. I'm no longer comfortable praying for things that I'm not convinced are in sync with God's heart.
Here are certain types of prayer requests that reflect more our human desires than the desires of God. Do these sound familiar?
The trivial: "Let's pray I can get over this cold" or "Give us a rain-free day for the church picnic." Our comfort and our plans seem important to us, but might God have something larger in mind? Might the farmers around us desperately need the rain? Our requests need to reflect things we truly expect God to do, not just our thoughtless hopes and whims. I don't want my requests to trivialize the awesome gift of prayer.
The self-motivated: "My brother's unit just got called up to go to Bosnia. Let's pray he won't have to go." While I can understand the emotion behind the request, it is still misplaced. If he's in the military, why shouldn't he go? God's purposes frequently include hardship and risk. Should we ask him to trump his purposes for our convenience?