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 discerning 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 how God answered.
We are often left praying a list of wishes, not pondering how God might use these situations to shape us or build his kingdom.
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 verbalizing our wish list.
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.
5 ways to pray with God in mind
Prayer enables us to discover what God is doing, to trace his hand in the circumstances of our lives. Through the vital communication of prayer, he transforms us in the process. Prayer, therefore, is not so much a means of manipulating the master plan, but of being shaped by the master's hand.
Not all prayer groups are conducive to that kind of prayer. Not all requests follow that understanding. Consider five guidelines to direct your prayer times to foster a transformational, ongoing walk with God.
1. Focus prayer on the people involved. The temptation at "prayer-request time" is to think only of action points we want God to undertake for us or gifts we want from him. That misses what God considers most important.
When the news arises of a brother going to a war zone, the opportunity for prayer is not to ask God to keep him home. That limits the scope of prayer to events, when it should be focused on people. It also limits the prayers to a specific request, without offering an opportunity to discern God's heart in the matter.
Instead, address the fears of his sister, the worry of his mother, and the faith of the soldier himself. We can pray that God will mold our courage and our ability to trust, that he will help us overcome fears, and that the brother will recognize God's presence and serve God in this situation. These are the evidences of God's work and the kinds of prayers he answers.
I've discovered that smaller groups give us time to process someone's struggle and help identify God's work. Even some home-sized groups can be too big for this kind of prayer. I have always found it more effective to break down in groups of two or three where people really take the time to explore the situation together.
2. Seek God's perspective. Many prayer requests fit what we think is best and often run counter to what God is actually doing.
I love how Peter and John responded to the Pharisee's threats that they stop proclaiming Jesus or face punishment. When they gathered later with other believers to pray, they didn't pray for what would be easiest. They could have prayed God would convert the Pharisees or wipe them from the face of the earth. But they didn't see either of those options as fitting God's design. Instead, they prayed for boldness to continue to do what God asked, even when they knew they might be beaten, imprisoned, or executed for it.
The primary step in prayer is asking God to reveal what he is doing in the situation and pausing long enough to let him answer. One of the things I most appreciate about Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God is that it invites us to trust God to show us what he is doing in our lives. Prayer should be directed by talking together to see if anyone has a specific insight about how to pray for the people involved.
3. Let trust, and not fear, fuel your prayers. Fear is the death of prayer because it is the opposite of faith. Most of my prayers, even well into midlife, were driven by my anxieties and fears.
I remember praying through our finances, and though we had enough to supply our needs for the present, I was concerned about the long term. I trusted him enough for today, but kept praying that he would do something to take my anxiety away for tomorrow. But God didn't want me to trust in my savings or the state lottery for security, he wanted me to trust in him.
What most enhances my relationship with Jesus is my ability to trust him, no matter what circumstance I'm in. He rarely answers prayers that ask him to fix my circumstances so that I can trust him less. His desire has always been that I would trust him more.
Prayers permeated with a faith-filled security in God's love and confidence in his character will be more effective than petitions for him to appease me. When I'm fearful, I've learned to pray first for my fear and for a fuller revelation of God's love before I pray for the specific outcome I might want. When I'm praying for others, I do the same.
4. Pray in agreement. I learned this fascinating aspect of prayer from a group of Christians in the Australian bush. The man leading the prayer meeting offered some unusual instructions:
"Tonight as we pray, we're only going to pray for what we agree upon. If one of you feels led to pray over something, ask the group if that's something we all sense. If it is, we can pray in agreement. If not, we'll pass over it for now and move on to other requests." I asked him later why he gave the unusual instructions. He said they had learned that praying for someone can become a subtle form of manipulation.
"If a man is depressed, then others pray for him to be happy. He's pressured then to smile at the end of the prayer and say, 'Thanks. I feel better,' whether he does or not. Maybe he doesn't need to 'feel better' right now. Maybe he needs to learn to cling to God in the midst of suffering. You don't know unless you ask."
If the person being prayed for didn't agree or understand the insight, the prayer group would set it aside and see what others might have on their hearts. Often, they told me, two or three weeks after someone had declined to be prayed for in a certain way, he or she would return convinced that was just the prayer that was needed.
By asking permission of one another to pray in certain ways, these Australians were able to maintain a more authentic and honest form of prayer. They also had a chance to share insights and see what God might be saying. It gave them the freedom to pray with boldness when they knew that all were seeking the same thing.
5. Follow up. Nothing expresses our concern to someone in need more than following up with a phone call a few days later to see how they are doing and what might have happened after our prayer.
If nothing has seemed to have happened since, we can ask God for wisdom. Is he doing something else in this situation than we thought? Is he teaching us to persevere in what we started? Staying in the process until something is resolved will not only be a blessing in that instance, but will train us for future opportunities in prayer.
Philippians 4:6 invites us to make any request of God, but it does not tell us to expect him to answer each request the way we want. God is not our fairy godmother who waves a magic wand to conform every circumstance to our whim. Real prayer is the process of getting involved with someone's need, praying as best we understand God's work, and then staying in the situation until we see God act.
It is a risk to pray in that expectant way, but it can lead to some incredible prayers. One of Henri Nouwen's spiritual directors once prayed over him: "May all your expectations be frustrated. May all your plans be thwarted. May all of your desires be withered into nothingness that you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit."
While I don't recommend praying that for someone you don't know well, here is someone who understood God's heart in prayer. Teaching people to move beyond their own agenda to touch the heart and passion of God will be a challenge, but it will deepen and enliven your prayer life.
Wayne Jacobsen a pastor for 20 years, is now director of Lifestream Ministries in Oxnard, California. www.lifestream.org.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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