Recently the nature of my prayer requests has undergone something of a mini-revolution. Back in the Spring I had the opportunity to read through the book A Praying Life by Paul Miller. I did this with two other guys for one of my seminary classes and then shortly after lead a small group through it. I had read perhaps one other small booklet on prayer before, which apparently was long enough ago and captured little enough of my attention (probably to no fault of its own) that I can’t remember the title or contents of it. In quite the opposite effect, there have been certain aspects of prayer that Miller explains in A Praying Life that have been lingering in my mind now for several months, which have only of late began to materialize in my prayer habits. Chief of these is the concept of praying that others become more like Christ.
What Do We Pray For?
It’s my not-so-unique observation that the things which we pray for, or rather, ask the Father for in prayer, are quite often centered on ourselves, and just as frequently have to do with one of two things. Most of our prayers too often have to do with either 1) asking for material things or resources, or 2) asking for a change of circumstances.
These two categories may include anything from asking for a new car or job, to asking for healing from a certain illness, to help finding a spouse, etc. None of these things are wrong in of themselves. Further, I would say that whatever our hearts’ desires are, we shouldn’t be so concerned about whether they are selfish or not. If they are selfish, then surely God will work through those things to shape our affections more towards His will. He does not want us to be pretentious about where our hearts desires really are. In addition, it will be near impossible, if simply unlikely, that our hearts will be conformed to God’s will if we are lying to ourselves about the things we really desire.
Therefore, it is best if we are upfront and honest with God about the things we desire. The Father wants us to be honest with Him, and He is gracious enough to listen to us in spite of our selfishness. He is good enough to transform our hearts through the times and seasons of prayer and waiting. It may have been exactly what He wanted from you all along; that is, to be honest with Him about where your heart is. So, I encourage you, don’t pray under false pretense, so as to portray yourself as more holy than you really are. God is not fooled.
Of course, this is not to say that you should be silly enough to pray only for what you feel strongly about. We know, according to Scripture, that God has several desires and prayers we should pray for. We should pray for His kingdom to come on this earth, we should pray for the advancement of the Gospel, we should pray for those in prison and being persecuted for the Faith, we should pray for our spiritual leaders and ministers. These are just a few simple things that are explicit in Scripture that we are encouraged to pray for. Our hearts might not yet be in a place where we feel strongly about these things. Still, that shouldn’t discourage us for praying for them. Rather, I think it is an excellent opportunity to practice the kind of spiritual discipline which continually seeks for God’s will, and not ours, in spite of how we feel about it at the moment. I honestly believe God is honored when we pray for things we know is within His will, even though our hearts haven’t quite caught up.
This isn’t contrary to what I just encouraged a couple paragraphs above. Rather, the emphasis is on your posture and honesty about how you feel. For example, it’s one thing to pray for the salvation of others when you could care less, but you still do so because you’re trying to convince God and others (probably yourself too) that you are a spiritual person. This would be wrong. It’s another thing to pray for the salvation of others while at the same time you may not feel strongly about that, though you know you should, so you are honest with God along the way and ask Him to shape your heart toward His will in that regard.
Such a prayer might look like this: “Father, I know it is your will that people would be saved from all nations and languages. I know that it is your will that people in my school and neighborhood are saved. To be honest, I don’t feel moved to pray for these people. I can’t get past the things that I’ve been praying for myself, yet You haven’t provided. I guess I’m feeling bitter toward You and selfish about what I want. Still, I know this is your will and desire, so I pray that people would be saved in my school and community, and across the world. I pray that you would change my heart on this issue too. I want my heart to be aligned with Yours and that’s something only You can do.”
What Should We Pray For?
This gets me to my own mini-revolution in prayer. As I said previously, it is not wrong to pray for material things or a change of circumstances, per se. But by and large, the thing that God wants to change about us is not what we have or are going through, but who we are! That is, the Father wants most of all to change us into the image of Christ.
According to this notion, when faced with a lack of material resources or challenging circumstances, God’s desire may not simply be to fix the problem by providing a material gift or changing your circumstance, but rather shaping you through that experience to become more like Christ. Consider this passage from Romans 5: 3-5.
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
It seems that the Apostle Paul considers tribulations as an opportunity, first and foremost, for God to shape us in our character, towards the end goal of hope in Christ. And why does hope not disappoint? Because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts, not through providing things or changing circumstances. Certainly, God may very well provide you the things you pray for. I’m not arguing that He won’t or doesn’t want to. My point is that the emphasis of our prayers should most likely-gradually move from external desires to internal needs. We may desire a better job with better pay or for a circumstance to change in our lives, but what we need is a heart and mind like Christ. We need to better understand love to better love our neighbors, not a nicer home in which to host people (1 Cor. 13). We need the strength of God to endure (lit. to bear the weight of) temptation, not to be magically removed from it. (1 Cor. 10:13). We need more faith through the things that require it, not less things which challenge our faith. We need to become more like Christ. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3).
Praying For Difficult Things
I heard it said one time that a kind of failure in the Christian life would be to go through a trial and come out the other side unchanged. There are a host of things which I desire and pray for, both for myself and others. I want people to have the material resources that would ease their hard times. I want people to be placed in more encouraging environments, to receive the things which would make them happy. But even more so, as I am coming to realize, I want them to become more like Christ. I want their hearts and affections to be shaped in such a way as to lean more fully on Christ. I want people to find more hope and joy in that than they would have had if they simply received the thing which would “fix” their problem.
And this is not an easy thing to pray for, especially for myself and for others. I know that if I pray that a person become more like Christ through a trial, then the hope for the end of that trial moves down in priority, in a way. This is especially challenging if it applies to sickness and disease. What if our first priority in praying about sickness was not healing as much as faith? On the surface that seems contradictory because it’s by faith we trust in the Lord for healing. But it’s also by faith that we trust in the Lord’s goodness in light our pain and suffering. And, it may very well be the reality that it requires more faith to trust in the Lord in light of pain and suffering and death than the faith it would require to trust in His intentions to heal.
Of course, this is not to say that we quit praying for healing. The Lord is the Great Physician and I’m confident He still does miraculous things which cannot be explained by medical professionals. But all these are ultimately to His glory. So whether it is healing or whether it is dying, we are to become more like Christ whichever outcome the Lord decides. Neither result is from a direct lack of faith or abundance of faith. Rather, each is an opportunity for faith to increase, for us to lean more heavily on Christ, for us to become more like Him.