Take note of the astonishing nature of what Jesus promised his disciples, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn 15:7). These words describe the privilege and power of prayer. We know that, without God’s gracious help, without the condescending and sacrificial work of Jesus Christ or the constant ministry of the Holy Spirit, we remain totally powerless to effect anything of eternal value (Jn 15:5). We are completely unable to please God or deliver ourselves from our desperate state. The world is full of those who pray and whose prayers are never answered, because they do not approach the living God through the only mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. However, against this backdrop, the Son of God tells us with his very words that if we are among those who abide in him, we and our prayers are no longer resigned to futility or fruitlessness in life. God actually hears and faithfully answers our prayers for Jesus’ sake.
The Privilege and Power of Prayer
This promise sets the plate for what I would like us to consider, for it alerts us to this great privilege, which we should highly regard and apply ourselves to enjoying well. Many of the following thoughts are not original with me. I gratefully refer you to a lecture Dr. David Powlison gave on the topic of prayer requests titled, “Modeling Grace Through Prayer Requests.” His work has been a great catalyst for my own reflections and practice.
Prayer is one of the most powerful ways we can lovingly enter into each others’ lives. By interceding for one another, we can magnify the grace and shepherding care of the the Lord Jesus Christ for his flock. And so, we ought to pray for one another on a regular basis, especially in each others’ company. Such prayer should be a normal part of Christian fellowship. However, we often “fumble” the God-given opportunities we have to invite the Holy Spirit’s transforming power into our lives. And this is not just because we resist sharing our needs with one another and prefer to hide (although that’s often true), or because we apathetically neglect to pray for each other when we become aware of one another’s needs. It’s also because the prayers we do offer up to God are often heavily, if not entirely, focused on the temporal situations in view and not on the transformation of the person in the situation, whether that be ourselves or someone else.
At its core, what is a personal prayer request? It’s a statement of what we perceive to be our deepest need at that moment. My prayer requests announce to others where I sense I need God’s help. The most common prayer requests heard in churches or in small group settings tend to be situational. They have to do with health problems, work responsibilities, major decisions, and daily provision. Often our focus in prayer is that suffering be removed, or that an event would “go smoothly.” And whenever that is the case, the impression is definitely, if not expressly, made that the kingdom of God is not actually about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, but about healthier, wealthier lives in the here and now. That’s a dangerously deceitful message to be sending to ourselves and to others, however subtly or unintentionally sent. We know, from God’s Word, and from our own Christian experience, that the Lord’s number one agenda item is not that we all be healthy and wealthy or that our lives be free from ‘bumps in the road.’ We rightly recoil when we hear such being preached by television evangelists or “health and wealth” preachers. Times of heartache, affliction, or unexpected change can be some of the most spiritually fruitful seasons of life. And our Savior promised his disciples that they would encounter tribulation in this world (John 16:33). That is still the case. The emphasis of our prayers ought not be on avoiding that which the Lord has said is unavoidable.
A More Biblically Balanced Approach
Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with praying for change in the external situations of our lives. The Scriptures address these aspects of life as real needs and subjects of prayer in various places. After all, Jesus taught his disciples, and us, to pray, “give us this day our daily bread . . .” (Matt 6:11). James 5:13ff is a good example of how both temporal and eternal needs ought to coincide in our prayers. James writes, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” So, we have biblical warrant to pray that God heal those with various health problems and to ask others to pray about the health of our bodies. But even this passage, which is the prooftext for praying about our physical well-being, doesn’t stop there. James continues, “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” So, complete healing goes beyond the merely physical. And when physical, temporary needs are appropriately the subject of our prayers, they must be held in balance with our greater, spiritual needs.
But the biblical paradigm of this balance is not of two equal or symmetrical foci. As I have been learning in a Gospels & Acts course with Professor Marcus Mininger at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, there is a definite asymmetry in Jesus’ and his apostles’ ministry between what we might categorize as “Word ministries” on the one hand, and “deed ministries” on the other hand. I wish I had space to develop that assertion here. But let us suffice it to say that the clear focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was the proclamation of the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God. His diaconal ministry, concerned with people’s bodily needs, played a distinctively supporting role.
Luke recorded for us in Acts how the apostles demonstrated the continuity of this principle of asymmetry when they said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2–4). Even where the Church’s ongoing diaconal ministry finds its greatest defense in Scripture, it is unmistakably placed in a subservient position, as a support to the more primary ministries of the Word and of prayer.
Focusing Our Prayers on Matters of Eternal Value
Another way of identifying the distinction being made here is to contrast ministry that has an eternal impact versus ministry done to or for the body, which is temporal and will not last. Coming from a slightly different angle, the Apostle Paul teaches us to have this kind of asymmetrical approach as we work out our own salvation, writing these words to Timothy, “. . . while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Our intercessory prayers and our personal prayer requests ought to demonstrate this same asymmetry. If neither the Lord, nor his apostles allowed their diaconal ministries to overshadow the ministry of the Word, and if Timothy was urged not to focus his energies on bodily discipline, the effects of which are temporary, but to apply himself to the spiritual disciplines of godliness, which has everlasting value, then why do we ever pray merely for people’s health or other temporal needs? Ever? We must avoid allowing the situational concerns of life to dominate our prayers to the exclusion of those things that are of first importance to our Savior.
What merely situational or temporal prayer requests tend to miss is the person and his/her need for Jesus’ transforming power in the midst of their life situation. Consider my friend Shorty, who answers my question, “How can I pray for you, Shorty?” by listing only situational needs. Now, Shorty might answer me, “Pray for my job; lay-offs are coming. Pray for my wife; she’s having migraines again. Pray for my son’s upcoming final exams; he wants to get into a good college.” Every one of these prayer requests is a situational need that surrounds Shorty. None of them addresses the needs that exist within Shorty, himself. None of them address how the kingdom of heaven comes or how God’s will is done in and through Shorty. What if God preserved Shorty’s job, removed his wife’s headaches, and granted his son the recall he needed for finals? Do these situational changes constitute the coming of the kingdom in Shorty’s life? No, they do not. For, even if God answered every one of Shorty’s situational prayers, there is no indication that Shorty, himself, would undergo transformation. And yet, sanctifying transformation is what God’s kingdom will bring as the Spirit continues making headway in our lives. Sanctifying transformation is what we need to be further enabled to obey God’s revealed will. In isolation, these situational prayers fall short of being eternal, heavenly Kingdom of God prayers.
Our greatest needs do not have to do with our health, our finances, or our grades. Our greatest needs have to do with who or what we worship, our growth in Christian discipleship, our dying to sin and living to righteousness, the stretching and strengthening of our faith, our active obedience to Christ, our joy in the salvation he has freely provided us, the expansion of the Church, etc. These are the kinds of things we should be seeking in prayer, things related to the kingdom and the righteousness of God (Matt. 6:33). So, wouldn’t it make more sense for us to not just pray that God change the situations of our lives, but that, by his Spirit, and for his glory, he might change us and those we pray for in the midst of our often difficult or unwelcome earthly circumstances?
The Fruit of Transformational Prayers
Additionally, if we think more transformationally and less situationally about our lives together—if we apply the asymmetry of Jesus’ and his apostles’ ministry to our own prayers—then our prayer requests will reveal our real needs and provide others with opportunities to encourage us where we really need encouragement. That’s where the Spirit is at work, in the precise places where the kingdom is seeking to make its militant advances in our lives. And because we’re dealing with our real transformational needs, our prayers can actually usher us into the light. That is where we are most aware of the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus and the sweetness of fellowship we have by virtue of our union with Christ (1 Jn 1:7). The forgiveness, wisdom, strength, and love that Jesus Christ offers us in prayer is full and free. We do not have to hide our real needs—our struggles with sin, our temptations, our trials, our weaknesses—behind merely situational prayer requests. And that’s because the confidence available to us in the midst of our fellowship with one another is not in our own righteousness or strength or wisdom anymore. Transformational prayer has the power to bring these realities to the surface in a doxological manner and in a way that strengthens our faith.
Likewise, if we begin to pray for change, not just in others’ situations, but in their minds, desires, and wills in light of their present situations, we will begin to see more and more direct answers to prayer. This is because our prayers (and therefore our expectations for what answers to prayer will look like) will be more directly aligned with the reality of how the Kingdom of God comes. Through transformationally-focused prayers, we fix our hope on the coming of the Kingdom, not according to our own imaginations, but according to the Scriptures. Is it not possible that we sometimes experience discouragement from unanswered prayers because we have asked wrongly (James 4:3)? I am convinced that praying with a focus on transformation is a more biblical way to pray according to God’s will, which goes beyond just saying, “if it be your will, Lord” as a tagline to every situational request we make.
Of course, in order to pray transformationally for others or make personal transformational prayer requests, you need know where and how transformation is needed. If you’re struggling to see the particulars of your own needs so that you might share them as prayer requests, consider this final suggestion. Think about all of our Savior’s exemplary characteristics and how you come up short by comparison. For example, consider confessing to a fellow believer some of the ways you are quick to anger or hold onto offense. Then request they pray that you begin to embody Jesus’ patient willingness to endure unjust suffering without complaint in light of the relationships and situations that tempt you to unrighteous anger. And we can confidently expect God to answer us, because our requests are truly concerned with his revealed will (1 Jn 5:14-15).
As it relates to your prayers for others, consider the various ways their situational prayer requests might be sources of temptation for them, and pray for the kingdom’s battle of the soul highlighted by their troubling situation. For example, per my earlier illustration, instead of only praying that Shorty retains his job, I can pray that the Lord would (1) strengthen Shorty’s faith in God’s power and willingness to provide generously for Christ’s sake, (2) guard Shorty’s heart as he is tempted to be anxious, and (3) convict Shorty of the need to continue working with integrity and hope because they derive from the eternal covenant promises of God and not temporal, “at-will” contracts between men. And all the while I can praise God with Shorty for the Lord’s covenant faithfulness to care for all of Shorty’s needs, which is chiefly demonstrated by the gift of his one and only Son. I believe we will find our transformational requests being answered in some measure even as we pray, well before we see answers to any of our situational requests. And what’s more, the eternal fruitfulness of transformational prayer will glorify our Heavenly Father and prove that we are disciples of his beloved Son (Jn 15:7).