Over the past few years of my ministry, I have been frustrated many times by what I have considered boring and pointless prayer requests. We’ll have just finished some Bible study considering the the great and irreversible effects of the redemption of all creation that has been achieved in Christ, or meditating on the cost and reward of taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus, wrestling with the gravity of human sin and depravity. Then someone wants me to pray for their cold, or their cat, or their coursework. No thanks. Give me something big to pray for. Something salvation-sized. Something spiritual. But upon reflection, I’m not sure that my desire for super-spiritual prayer points came from a place of deeper or more mature faith, but weaker faith. Here are the mistakes I think I was making:
Mistake #1: God only does spiritual stuff
Perhaps the worst of my unacknowledged assumptions was that God didn’t really deal in physical things. God does spiritual stuff. There were some truths in what I believed — God does care about spiritual things more than physical things. God is more interested in our holiness than our health or happiness. But I think that what often underlies the desire to focus solely on big spiritual things is a desire to spare God (and ourselves) the embarrassment of unanswered prayer. If I just pray for things that are intangible, unquantifiable, and not easily recognised over a short period of time, then I might be able to get away with not noticing if God does answer. But James doesn’t tell us to anoint the sick person with oil and then pray that God would teach them some very important spiritual lessons through their sickness. He says ‘the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.’ (James 5v15) Presumably we’re supposed to pray for their healing. What I’d rejected as naive and unspiritual prayers were often prayers that demonstrated trust that God is still interested and active in the world, and is still working in physical and visible ways.
Mistake #2: I’m basically self-sufficient when it comes to my physical needs
I have never gone hungry except by choice. I’m from an affluent background in an affluent country, and have a stable job. These are nothing close to being complaints — but they are dangers. It’s very easy for us to forget that we have any real dependence on God to meet our physical needs. The reason that Jesus talks so much about money being a potential rival to God is because it’s easily the next best contender for providing the things God promises to: food, security, joy, and a future. This means that there’s basically no point in me praying that the Lord would meet my physical needs — I have them covered — so I just give him the spiritual things that I feel I’m not in control of. But even before I pray for the forgiveness of my sins, and even before I pray not to be led into temptation, Jesus tells me to pray that there would be food on the table.
Mistake #3: Earthy = Worldly, Physical = Fleshly
Whereas I had unfettered myself from the concerns of the flesh, other poor souls were still worried about what to eat and what to wear. Worldly concerns, I thought. Perhaps so for some, but probably not for all, because Scripture uses similar concepts in different ways. The flesh is bad and a source of temptation in Paul’s writings, and in opposition to the things of the Spirit. Put 7 billion fleshes together, and you have what John calls the world, which loves darkness and is in opposition to God. Yet at the same time, the apostles never make the move from there to reject physical things. Our bodies, together with all of creation, are awaiting redemption, not rejection (Romans 8v22-25). The Word became flesh (John 1v14). Praying for God to meet physical needs, even ones which may seem small in the grand scheme of redemption, may be earthy, but that’s by no means the same thing as worldly. Of course, some pray for physical things for worldly reasons. Some people do pray for good exam results purely for the sake of their own reputation, or money for the sake of comfort. But hopefully I’ll get better at throwing out the bath water of sinful desires while keeping the baby of trust in God.
A better way: letting the physical serve the spiritual
As I said, there is still a priority to spiritual things. The Lord’s prayer does tell us to pray for bread, but much more of the prayer is concerned with the kingdom, holiness, forgiveness, reconciliation, etc. Paul’s prayers for the churches he writes to reflect similar priorities. But as Eugene Peterson said, we don’t become more spiritual by becoming less physical. Rather, praying for physical things can serve us in growing spiritually. Trusting God for our daily bread ought to build our trust that God will provide us with the bread of life. After all, if it turns out we can’t (or don’t) trust God with our bodies, how on earth will we trust him with our souls?
But to pre-empt any requests that may come: I still draw the line at praying for pets.