This entry isn’t for the prayer specialist. I thought it might be helpful for those who have never done a synthetic study of prayer in the New Testament.
The New Testament has several different words for prayer, each nuancing various meanings (e.g., intercession or thanksgiving). Yet, I’m not interested in talking about every instance of prayer in the New Testament right now. Of course, prayer is most certainly not about asking God for a bunch of stuff. In fact, communion with God doesn't have to involve one question at all. Remember when you used to court your spouse or romantic interest? We didn't sit around asking for stuff all the time. The other person's presence and approval was paramount, not having the person do something for us. Simultaneously, however, there are time when we are encouraged to approach God the Father as a God who wants to give us Himself. And giving Himself will involve doing certain things for us. So, for this post, I am only interested in asking the question: “Are there certain things we should not ask God for or certain things we should be asking?”
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote to his fellow sisters and brothers in Christ and said, “You do not have, because you do not ask [God in prayer]. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:2c-3, ESV)
I don’t intend for the following list to be exhaustive, but it gives us a good skeleton of a possible answer to this question. First, we need to remember that prayer, in essence, just means having a conversation with God. Our goal is to converse with Him. And all conversations involve numerous aspects: talking, listening, praising, critiquing, loving, etc. So it is with God and humans. We ought to think that God is our loving Father who wants to hear from us and speak with us. For some people, and perhaps you’re one, your parent(s) set an awful example of what a loving parental figure is. I am deeply sympathetic. However, I encourage you: please give God a chance. Read the Bible and see what kind of God He is.
Secondly, whatever the New Testament says, it should always be compared to the ministry of Jesus so that we don’t take a verse out of theological context. Of course there’s more to it than that, but I hope you’ll grant me mercy at this point for now.
Sometimes, I tell my kids, “Don’t even ask me. Don’t even bring it up.” It might involve a toy or certain treat that we’ve already discussed or the request might be so unethical that I won’t even entertain the idea. The same is true for God.
Do not ask God to be involved in
- Your sinful passions (Ja 4:3). This can involve passion “of the flesh” or any type of passion (anything that involves competition, whether it’s sports or job advancement)
- Other people’s downfall or destruction. This is clearly un-Christian.
Then, there are other things that we can ask for, just knowing they are not God’s chief concern. What’s so sad is that the following three things are what I hear Christians ask for the most throughout all my life (including myself!):
- Physical healing (Ja 5:14-16). Yes, James says to ask for healing if/when we need it. Yet, we must never forget that Jesus and the early apostles did not have an entire ministry of healing. Jesus was not chiefly interested in healing all the sick or demon-possessed or wounded. He did heal sometimes, yes. But, it was clearly not His chief concern. Jesus was well-aware that we, while in this body, will get sick and die. We can ask God for physical healing and sometimes He does grant it. Just know that for most of the time, His answer will be no.
- Physical safety (but see 2 Tim 3:12). Paul seems to imply this at different times when he says in passing that he prayed that God would allow him to make it to different places in Asia Minor during his missionary tours. Yet, again, we must remember that our physical safety is simply not near the top of God’s concerns. People do get hurt, raped, and wounded every day. Of course God grieves over the evil we do to each other, and the suffering caused by natural disasters. On top of that, we are guaranteed suffering when we act like Jesus’ disciples. But again, while in this body, we will get sick and die. The ultimate physical safety will come in the world to come.
- General success; things “going well” (3 Jn 1:2). Of course God is interested in the success of those things He orchestrates. The key here is to ask for God to make something successful as long as it’s what God wants. Just because we really want something to go well doesn’t mean that God does.
Notice how financial gain didn’t even make that list? I heard Joel Osteen say on his program one Sunday that God wants every person to own their own home. This is mere nonsense. It’s such a shame that the billions of people who will never have access to a house, and the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people who live in apartments, are consistently missing out on this "God-ordained promise" to his creatures. I can’t recall where this was in the Bible.
What about the manner we should speak to God?
Do talk with God
- Without any desire to be seen as pious (Matt 6:5). Ever heard people who seem to be really, really aware that people were listening? What a waste of energy. Do we really think that people can make a difference in what we’re asking for? So, we just can’t forget: we’re speaking and listening to God. He is our audience; we are His.
- Without formulas: be concise and sincere (Matt 6:7). Again, we don’t have to pray for the missionaries at every prayer. Say what you mean and mean what you say. He already knows your mind, so just tell Him. You’ll see how good it feels to confess something to Him and you’ll see how rewarding it is. “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” seemed just enough words to work for at least one guy that Jesus praised.
- Like you’re talking with a loving, caring, Father (Matt 6:9), not as if He is a stranger. Even when we are the most broken, immediately after we’ve sinned, He welcomes us home. Act like it. Confess, repent, and receive His love. ”Well . . . uh . . . God . . . haha . . . it’s been a long time . . . and uh . . . Fathereth . . . . in Heaveneth . . . hallowed be They nameth . . . on higheth . . .” Who talks like this to someone they know and love? Do we really think that God only understands Elizabethan English?
- In the Holy Spirit (Jude 1:20; Rom 8:26). We ask the Spirit to speak through us so that all of our mind/heart is known.
Do ask God:
- To forgive your sins (Matt 5:12; acts 8:22) and other’s sins (1 Sam 7:5). Ever wonder why you don’t feel close to a person you love? It’s almost always because there is something unresolved between you two. Wonder why you don’t feel close to God? It’s probably because of sin.
- For daily–not monthly or yearly or for retirement–needs to be met (Matt 6:11).
- For wisdom (Ja 1:5).
- to know how to avoid temptation (Mk 14:38; Matt 6:13) and
- to know what is right and the courage to do it (2 Cor 13:7; 2 Thess 1:11-12)
- For God’s will to be known and done through His creatures (Matt 6:10; Mk 14:36; Col 1:9).
- For all the fruit of the Spirit—anything that causes you to develop virtues (Gal 5:22).
- For comfort (2 Cor 1:3-4) , joy and peace (Rom 15:13; 1 Cor 14:33).
- For God to do for your enemies and those who persecute you, exactly what you’re asking for Him to do for you (Lk 6:28). Did this last one stun you a little bit? It did me! ”And God, whatever I just asked you for, ditto that for my worst enemies.” Until we can pray such a prayer we have no idea what the mind of Christ is (1 Cor 2:16; Phil 2:5).
In general, God is much more interesting in shaping you into a particular kind of person with particular virtues than He is with anything else. This is precisely why He can take any evil done to us and any bad news we hear and any suffering we experience and work it out in the end. We are His raw material to shape and to mold.
That’s all for now. Perhaps we’ll close with a model prayer (and that’s what this is, a model, an example of the kinds of prayers we should be giving):
Our Father who is in Heaven,
Your name be holy, Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done on Earth as it is Heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive our sins
as much as we have forgiven those
who have sinned against us.
And do not bring us into testing,
but rescue us from evil.
For the Kingdom,