Ugly Prayer Requests
Table of Contents
It was in 2019, following a really nasty breakup, that I completely broke down in my friend's car. The specifics of what had gotten me to that point are unimportant, too much prayer has gone into it to be of any relevance, but the net result is that I was in quite a dark place. See, I've always felt called to marriage. Call me an idiot, but I've prayed about it a lot, asked for God to take the calling, tested it, it's still there.
I asked my friend, through a very attractive and manly river of tears and snot, “will you please pray with me? I'd love to get married one day.”
My friend's response wasn't what I'd expected.
"Well, I dunno big lad. Like, it'd be nice to see you with someone but there's so much else wrong in your life right now, I'm not going to pray for that. I'm going to pray for you to fix X/y/z. Prove to me you can do this then I'll pray for you."
My first thought was shock and hurt. How could someone who professed to love me and stand with me not actually stand with me in the place I was hurting the most?
My second thought was: What an arsehole. Is this someone I truly need to stand with me?
My third thought was: maybe I've heard my calling wrong. Maybe my prayers don't matter.
I never bothered praying for marriage with my friend, I got out of the car and walked away, my river of snot and tears still in mid-flow. Walking out of that car, I walked away from a friendship that had lasted about 3 years. We are, much to my regret, no longer friends. He isn't walking with Jesus and although I constantly pray for Jesus to get in his life and bring him back to the foot of the cross, I don't know that I could ever trust him with my heart again.
Forgiveness is amazing, but the scars are still heavy.
Getting serious about prayer
I think, if you are serious about this Jesus thing, then prayer should be an absolute priority to you. Ephesians 6:18 tells us "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests." Prayer is a fundamental part of who we are called to be as Christians. And that's because prayer changes things. You can't walk a long time with the Lord and not see the lives of others (and indeed your own) transformed by the power of prayer to a perfectly loving and holy God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:18)
If you aren't praying for everyone all the time, you aren't doing the God thing right.
That's kind of just the way it is!
The weird thing is, what happens when we walk in a lifestyle that centers around prayer, is that eventually someone will ask us to pray for something uncomfortable, or strange sounding, or that seems a bit odd. People will come to us with all kinds of prayer requests. Some will be easy, but some will be difficult.
We will want to pray some and we will want to run from others.
Someone will ask us to pray into an ugly prayer request. Something that offends our sensibilities, or seems at odds with what we know or what we believe.
Maybe it doesn’t feel right.
Maybe it goes against common sense.
Maybe it doesn’t tally with what we know about that person.
Maybe it just seems really odd.
If we live a life of prayer, we will encounter this stuff.
So the question is, how do we, as Christians, respond when someone asks us to pray for something uncomfortable, we don't agree with or we feel might be not in line with what God wants?
Do we crack on or do we refuse?
Ezekiel 22:30, in one of the most heart-breaking verses in the Bible, says "I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land…" Prayer is part of standing in the gap for other people. And sometimes that gap is full of stuff that makes sense, and sometimes it's like standing in an emotional and relational minefield.
I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land… (Ezekiel 22:30)
How do you start in the gap for others when we think the gap isn't worth standing in?
I think the incident from 2019 with my friend showed me the way I absolutely would not want to handle an ugly prayer request. That interaction wounded me, it absolutely scarred my soul because it took an area of vulnerability and hurt and turned it into yet another "be better." At a time when unconditional love was needed, it was made conditional and performance based. It felt like a casual dismissal of my hurts and a place where healing was needed.
What that resulted in, without wishing to sound overly dramatic, is a trauma based response. It caused me to doubt the calling God put on my heart. It made me feel as if my concerns and hurts were invalid. Were all those verses about God mourning with us wrong? Were all those promises for everyone except me?
And we see this all the time in Christian culture. Any Christian environment has the ability to respond to almost any practical or spiritual need it is presented with within it's community. Acts 2:44 tells us "And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had." Whilst this is generally understood to mean material possessions, the passage implies that all needs were met. Not just financial, but why wouldn't this include spiritual as well?
And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. (Acts 2:44)
The importance of mercy
Inevitably, someone will always try and bring to bear the argument that, just because someone has a prayer need, it doesn't always mean that it's beneficial or helpful to pray into it. Normally the examples that are given are extremely flowery or overblown, full of whatiffery and extreme hypotheticals.
"You sure we should pray for your ex-boyfriend's hair to fall out?"
"Why am I praying for 30 tonnes of cheese?"
"I don't know if God specifically wants to give you superpowers"
Yet there is an underlying theme here.
Are we praying in line with God's heart towards that person and their situation?
Let's say I'm praying with a young fella whose girlfriend has just dumped him. It might not be in line for me to pray that God smites her with a meteor from orbit, but it might be in line for me to pray that God would minister to this guy's heart. Is it biblical for me to pray that God gives this guy a new lady to fall in love with? Absolutely! Is it Biblical for me to pray that his ex gets mauled by a bear? Probably not.
To paraphrase Mark Comer in his wonderful book "God has a name," Comer argues that God's default state towards us is one of mercy. God is slow to anger, abounding in love, grace and forgiveness. And if we are called to love one another with everything in us, we could do worse than to love in a merciful way.
How this applies when it comes to ugly or unpalatable prayer requests is simply just to approach the other person from a place of mercy. We are absolutely not God and to assume his role would be an utter obscenity, yet we so often do. We so often put ourselves in a place of judgment over another person when we condemn or judge their prayer requests. Yet James 4:12 tells us “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour?”
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour? (James 4:12)
When we judge the prayer requests of others as ugly, we do not have a heart that favours mercy. And because of that, we assume the role of God as judge.
What this produces is a trauma based response in people. When people ask for prayer, often it isn't a way of trying to strong arm God into doing something through nagging Him with enough people. Often it's about them expressing their hurts, their fears and their worries. For us to judge and assume the role of God in a place where people are opening up to us about their hurts and worries is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Anything other than speaking mercy into a place of hurt and pain is an obscenity.
If someone trusts us enough to open up to the things that are scarring their very soul, how dare we be so dismissive?
Praying with God's heart
Now to be clear, I am absolutely not saying you need to pray for every single bonkers prayer request you are confronted with, I absolutely don't. But to casually dismiss it, to pour on scorn or judgment into a place of someone's hurt is effectively crapping on someone's head and asking them to say "thank you for the hat."
Yet it does raise an important point. What do we do when we are confronted with a prayer request we're not comfortable with, or we think is unreasonable or misguided?
Surely there has to be a way to sort out what we should be praying into?
I think the first thing to consider is what's being asked for in line with what would be on God's heart? Or is it in line with God's will?
Jesus teaches us in the Lord's prayer to pray first, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." When modelling what prayer should look like, Jesus shows us that God's will and God's Kingdom are the most important things to pray into. What we want comes right at the end.
Yet a lot of modern Christian culture would like us to adopt a "name it and claim it" attitude, they want us to “blab it and grab it”. A lot of pastors and preachers tell us "prioritize what you want," "have faith and it'll be yours,"
Except God doesn’t work like that.
Many of these schools of thought that preach a Christian version of self actualisation are teaching people to become self deluded, and we have a responsibility not to be party to that. But at the same time, we do need to respond.
So what I have found that works well is this. Asking the question internally, is what we’re praying for in line with God’s will?
It isn’t about imposing our perspective.
It’s about asking for God’s.
Maybe the first step we should be taking, rather than just telling someone they’re wrong, is to take a moment and ask the spirit “is this in line with what God wants for this person?”
James 1:5 tells us that “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” so are we asking for Biblical wisdom to know what we are praying into?
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him (James 1:5)
Because we aren’t God, we can’t just assume we know His will.
Lets ask, the answer might just surprise us.
What if it isn’t in line with God’s will?
Then don’t pray it. Simple.
But don’t be a muppet about it.
Maybe, instead, we stand in prayer with that person and still pray for them. We pray things that we know are true over them.
We pray for God's love.
We pray for God's grace.
We pray for blessing.
We pray for the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
We pray for hope and joy and peace and goodness.
Because those things come from a heart inclined towards mercy.
Those things come from God’s heart.
What we absolutely cannot do is issue a list of demands or ultimatums.
We cannot make our prayer conditional on their performance or our perception.
1 John 2:1 tells us that “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Jesus is the one who advocates for us to God. Jesus can do that for us, despite how messed up, broken and selfish each of us is.
So why can’t we advocate for each other?
The power of persistent prayer
Here’s an interesting question for you.
Have you ever prayed for someone for a sustained length of time?
I don’t mean one prayer session. But prayed for them intentionally, multiple times?
Prayer changes things.
When we are confronted with ugly prayer requests, our default stance can be, so often, to run away and to hide from them, or to lash out in condemnation.
Ephesians 6:18 tells us “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere."
Psalm 116:2, says that “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us “Never stop praying,”
When the Bible repeats something, it’s so we pay attention.
Be persistent in prayer.
How this fits into ugly prayer requests is, although we may not be inclined to pray in line with something that is not God's will, not do we avoid praying either. We can't just offer lip service to prayer.
The Bible explicitly commands, don't stop praying.
So perhaps when someone comes to us with an ugly prayer request.
When we have checked our hearts are orientated towards mercy.
When we have asked for wisdom if it is in line with God's will
When we have prayed God's promises over that person.
Then keep praying.
Pray with them again.
Pray with them at church.
Pray with them in your car.
Pray with them in the street.
Pray with them in their house.
Get in their lives and pray with them.
Because I can emphatically promise you this. Even though the specific thing they way prayer for might sound wierd. Even though it might seem odd. Even if it's not in God's will. Persistently praying blessings and love over that person from a place of mercy will do far more than you will ever know.
Bringing our prayers to a close
Ultimately, we are not the point in any of this.
We are not the ones who exist to be served.
We are the ones who exist to serve others.
God is the point.
We are absolutely not the point.
God promises in Ezekiel 36:26 "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."
What this means is that, when responding to ugly prayer requests, how are we responding?
Are we responding with our own hearts, hardened against the world and unable to see people the way God sees them?
Or are we responding with God's heart, from a place of love and mercy, in line with God's will, wanting the best for that person, speaking hop and blessing and life over them.
Ultimately the way we respond to ugly prayer requests has the power to make or break a person.
It can remind them of God's love, no matter how daft or outrageous their prayer seems.
Or it can force them into a place of condemnation.
The choice in how we respond is ours.
But so are the consequences.