How to Pray – Part 3

by Jessica Bowman (reprinted with permission)

Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Last week [last month on Under the Cover of Prayer] we talked about the silliness involved in asking God to do what he’s already doing.  This week I want to address the opposite.

Asking God to do what he’s not going to do.

Here’s the part where some of you are thinking, “How can you, or I, or anyone know what God isn’t going to do?”

Well, it’s a beautiful little thing called common sense.

Let me skip right to an example now before you guys tar and feather me.  One of the common ways I’ve heard this how-not-to-pray perpetrated is with the overly broad prayer.  Here’s a classic: “Lord, please protect our military.”

Does anyone, anyone, think that by requesting that, God is going to stop absolutely every soldier from being harmed?  No.  We know that’s not going to happen.  So why waste our breath babbling it each week?

Bill Hybels in Too Busy Not to Pray says,

“Another kind of meaningless repetition is often heard at the dinner table.  A person sits down to a meal that is a nutritional nightmare.  The grease is bubbling, the salt is glistening, the sugared drink stands ready to slosh the stuff down. “Dear Lord,” the person prays, “bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies so that we may do your will.” God’s will might be for the person to say “Amen,” push back from the table, and give the meal to the dog – except that dogs matter to God, too!

The apostle Paul tells us God’s will in 1 Corinthians 6:20: “Honor God with your body.” That means putting the right things into your body.  Don’t ask God to bless junk food and miraculously transform it so that it has nutritional value. Doing that is acting like the fifth-grader who, after taking the geography test, prayed, “Dear God, please make Detroit the capital of Michigan.” That’s not how God works.”

A Jewish Rabbi also touched on the topic of asking God to do what he’s not going to do when he said:

“If one’s wife is pregnant and he said, “May it be thy will that she give birth to a male” – lo, this is a vain prayer.  If he is coming along the road and heard a noise of crying in the city and said, “May it be thy will that those who are crying are not members of my household” – lo, this is a vain prayer.”

Why are these prayers “vain” (pointless).  Because the requests are things that have already been decided.  It’s essentially asking God to change the past.  And at worst, it’s wishing harm to fall on others instead of ourselves (if it’s not your family crying, you’re asking that it be someone else’s) (come to think of it, if it’s our troops “protected” and “blessed”, we’re asking for someone else’s family not to be…)

We have to stop praying these “vain” prayers.  They are fruitless tares, giving us something to point to in our prayer fields, but bearing no fruit.

Remember that one definition for “vain” is “without real significance, value, or importance”.  Is that really what we want our prayers to be?  Without real significance?

And, yes, I’ve been just as guilty as everyone else for praying a lifetime of vain prayers.  So be honest, are the majority of your prayers repetitive requests asking God do what he’s already doing, or what he’s not going to do?