Prayer: How Specific Should Our Prayers Be?

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A while back, I felt convicted that as a pastor, I wasn’t praying enough. It was hard for me to see prayer as something I was supposed to do “on the clock.” If I wasn’t talking with someone, writing a sermon, answering an email, preparing a Bible study, I didn’t think it was ministry. I came to realize through conversations with more experienced ministers and through reading Scripture that prayer is what I’m supposed to be doing more than anything. So, I started praying more.

This has developed into praying very specific prayers. For example, in my InterVarsity work, I’ve become convicted that God’s vision for grad students at Carnegie Mellon is for there to be a network of witnessing communities in every college at CMU. Since Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered, he’s there with them, I decided that at least two missional grad students in each college at CMU was a reasonable expectation, so that’s what I’ve been asking for. Likewise, I’ve realized recently how great it is to have “divine appointments” – moments in which I can either share my faith or hear someone else share about their faith. I felt convicted to pray for a divine appointment every day, and have been amazed at the frequency with which God answers those prayers.

Some of the responses I’ve gotten from fellow Christians about this praying have been interesting. When someone else in a prayer group heard me ask God specifically for two missional Christians in every college at CMU, he responded, “So you’re a person who prays numbers? I’ve been told that when you do that God will do one of three things, he’ll either give you less than what you ask for, give you  more than what you ask for, or give you something completely different.” Translation: If you ask God for something too specific, there’s no chance that he’ll grant your request to the “T.”

Likewise, when another colleague learned of my asking for a divine appointment each day, his response was cautionary. He reminded me that the reason those prayers were being answered wasn’t because God was doing anything different, but because I had simply made myself more open to divine appointments happening. Translation: Prayer is less about asking God to do something and more about making us more attune to what God is already doing.

It’s hard to pray specific prayers. In fact, it’s hard to ask anyone, whether God or a fellow human being, for something specific. In my support raising for InterVarsity, I’ve been encouraged to ask for potential donors to give specific amounts of money. Mustering up the courage to do this is extremely difficult, and I’m rarely able to find that much courage. Asking for something specific is scary because it increases the chance that our request will be rejected. The same is true for prayers to God; the more abstract our prayers, the less likely those prayers will go unanswered and the less likely our faith will be shaken.

At the same time, though, the specific prayers that I’ve been praying have been increasing, not decreasing, my faith. One of the influences on me in praying these specific prayers has been my InterVarsity training materials. InterVarsity’s Chapter Planting Manual encourages planters to ask God to bring specific numbers of students to various events, and when it does this, it says to only ask for the number of people you can pray for in faith. In other words, when you pray specifically, don’t pray for more than what you believe God can do. I don’t take specific prayers lightly. Praying in this way has forced me to reflect on my own faith and to think through what I truly believe my God is capable of.

Also, praying for “divine appointments” has, in my opinion, done far more than simply open me up to what God is already doing. I’m always amazed at how often God answers this prayer when I pray it, and how often divine appointments don’t happen when I forget to pray this prayer. I think God is teaching me something in this experience about his own heart for those whom He loves. God longs to gather His lost sheep, and He longs to do it through the voice of his people. Praying for divine appointments is showing me the heart of God in a very intimate way.

Specific prayers are dangerous. They make us far more vulnerable before God. But when we take them seriously, they also make us more honest with God about our own faith, and they open up for us the opportunity to experience God in ways far more vivid.

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2 thoughts on “Prayer: How Specific Should Our Prayers Be?

  1. It’s a bit of a conundrum for me. Specific prayers aren’t a primary focus of my prayer life. I tend to feel they can grow perilously close to Jesus-Magic, and I’m reluctant to go too far down that path. I tend to favor the Lord’s Prayer (even as a personal devotion) and self-emptying, with intermittent specific prayer.

    Then again, sometimes they work, and in amazing ways. Like praying for one’s heart to be reconciled with someone, and then having that someone do things that…seemingly by total coincidence…bring about reconciliation.

    However I pray, the heart of it is to be conformed to His will, and receive what He has to offer even if it’s not quite what you had in mind. He isn’t a tame lion, as they say.

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