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Does it matter if I pray for the wrong thing?

May 8, 2017, by Rev. Andrew Forrest

I get this question all the time, and I understand why: in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us that, in our prayers to God, we should say “your Kingdom come, your will be done.” In other words, we should want what God wants, and we should pray in that way. But, other than in vague generalities, how do we know what God wants in any particular circumstance? What if we pray against God’s will? What if we pray for the wrong thing?

The result of this anxiety is that we end up praying tepid prayers along the lines of “God, please do whatever you want to do in this situation.” The problem with those sorts of prayers is that they are essentially dishonest: we are reluctant to actually say what we really want.

I say these sorts of whatever-you-want-Lord prayers are essentially dishonest because in them we are not saying what we really want to say, but rather what we think we’re supposed to say.

What we want to say is, “God, I really, really, really need this raise. Please help me get it.”

What we want to say is, “God, my neighbor is a jerk—please protect me and punish him.”

What we want to say is, “God, PLEASE SAVE MY WIFE’S LIFE, RIGHT NOW.”

We don’t pray those prayers, however, because either we are hedging our bets - “What if God doesn’t heal the cancer?” - or because we want to present ourselves as better than we really are - “I’d really like God to punish that guy, but I know I can’t really say it.” The results of this hesitancy toward honesty are throwaway, tepid prayers that have the varnish of piety but lack any real substance.

Prayers build your relationship with God

These empty prayers are harmful because although one component of prayer is certainly petitionary - asking for things - another and more important component of prayer is relational: when we pray, in some mysterious way, we enter into communion with the Lord. A relationship must be built on candor and trust, and so prayers that are essentially dishonest - “God, do whatever you want to do” - will be an obstacle to true fellowship with God.

A friendship, marriage, or business partnership requires honesty between the parties involved for it to truly thrive; in the same way, so does our relationship with God.

This is why I tell people that in prayer, honesty is more important than accuracy.

Pray with honesty

What I mean is that it’s better for you to pray what you actually think than to try to pray what you think God wants to hear. I am not saying that our desires are good and right just because we desire them; on the contrary, I think our desires are almost always disordered. Rather, I am saying that if you start with honesty, you’ll develop a relationship with God that will, over time, refine your desires to be more in accordance with his will.

“In prayer, honesty and intimacy are more important than accuracy.”

In prayer, honesty is more important than accuracy: say what you really think, and don’t be hindered by your ignorance of God’s will in this or that situation. In fact, if you pray honestly, God’s will will be revealed to you, over time.

This is exactly what happened to my friend Mary. Mary and her husband were unable to have children and she prayed and prayed and prayed, year after year:

“God, make me pregnant.”

“Make me pregnant.”

“Make me pregnant.”

But the children didn’t come.

And then one day, after years of those prayers, Mary felt God say to her, “I created you to be a mom, but you don’t have to be pregnant to be a mom.” And so Mary and her husband decided to enter the foster care system, and they fostered a beautiful little girl. They loved that little girl as their own, and they decided to move toward adoption.

After all those years of praying, God had refined Mary’s desires and answered her prayers in accordance with his will, in a way that Mary could never have understood when she started to pray that desperate prayer, “God, make me pregnant.”

And then, two days before the adoption papers were signed for their daughter, Mary discovered the most startling news: she actually was pregnant! These days, Mary and her husband have two beautiful little girls, and their prayers have been answered in ways that exceeded what they could have asked for or imagined.

“It is in the act of praying itself that often God refines and shapes the desires of our heart to be in accordance with his will.”

So, imagine if Mary, all those years ago, instead of crying out the desire of her heart in desperation - “God, please, please, please make me pregnant!” - had instead settled for a tepid, dishonest, and dishonestly pious prayer along the lines of “God, whatever you want.” What if she had stopped praying? What if she had never given the Lord the opportunity to answer her prayers in his own way and timing? What if she and her husband and their two little girls never had this story to tell of God’s faithfulness and mercy?

What about you?

There is no way of knowing to what end your honest, persistent prayers might lead. But, I guarantee you that it’s an end that’s far better than what you can now imagine.