What, exactly, should we pray for?
There was a skit years ago on “Saturday Night Live” in which a homemaker, played by guest host Sally Field, prays so specifically, for so many little things, that Jesus (played by the late, great Phil Hartman) has to show up in person and ask her not to pray so much.
And yet, there are numerous Bible passages encouraging us to bring our petitions to God.
Mark 11:22-24 (CEB): “Jesus responded to them, ‘Have faith in God! I assure you that whoever says to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea” — and doesn’t waver but believes that what is said will really happen — it will happen. Therefore I say to you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you will receive it, and it will be so for you. And whenever you stand up to pray, if you have something against anyone, forgive so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your wrongdoings.’”
Matthew 7:7-11 (CEB): “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened. Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”
1 John 5:14-15 (CEB): “This is the confidence that we have in our relationship with God: If we ask for anything in agreement with his will, he listens to us. If we know that he listens to whatever we ask, we know that we have received what we asked from him.”
Note the phrase “anything in agreement with his will” in that passage from 1 John. God wants us to grant our requests, but only if they’re in agreement with what God’s will – and most of our conceptions of God hold God’s will to be relatively fixed, even to the point of discounting or explaining away Bible stories where God seems to change his mind. So, if we pray for exactly what God intended to do in the first place, God will grant our prayer. That sounds a little like Henry Ford’s famous quote that “You can have a Model T in any color you like … provided it’s black.”
But yet, God tells us to bring our petitions. What gives?
What gives is that prayer, at its best, becomes a conversation. Maybe not a conversation in the most literal sense of the word, but a conversation in the little tugs God makes at our heart as we struggle to come closer to God.
God urges us to make specific requests, and yet specific requests stand the greatest chance of not being in God’s will. “God, let me win the lottery this week so I can afford to pay my insurance premium” stands less chance of being granted than “God, provide for my basic needs this week.”
I have to take issue with the SNL writers (who, I have to admit, wrote a thoughtful and relatively faith-friendly sketch) in their presumption that any request is too trivial for us to bring to God. Those of you who are parents, or grandparents, think of some of the things for which your children and grandchildren asked you when they were too young to know any better. No, you didn’t necessarily buy them a pony every time they asked for one. But the fact that they would ask for one was a sign of their love for you, and their trust in you, and the request, though ungranted, may even be a treasured memory for you.
Jesus wants to be lord of every aspect of your life – your family, your work, your leisure. God accepts petitions about the serious and the trivial. Condescending reproaches sometimes indicate that God is “too busy” running the universe to be concerned with trivial requests. That implies human-like limits on God’s capacity to act or to listen. I do not believe such limits exist.
If we treat our prayer as a conversation, as an opportunity for growth, if we try to listen for God in the quiet places, then perhaps our requests will change and evolve over time. Perhaps we’ll realize that what we ask for says something about what our priorities are, and perhaps we’ll be motivated to change those priorities. Perhaps we’ll get better at praying for the right things, and prayer will become less of a lottery ticket and more of a revelation of the ways in which God already is, and has always been, taking care of us. But the most important thing is for that conversation to get started, and sometimes the places where it starts may seem silly or trivial.
“Pray continually,” Paul advises in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. If anyone tells you you’re praying too much, or for the wrong things, it might just be Phil Hartman wearing a beard.