What if I’m praying for the wrong thing?

Maintaining a consistent, daily routine of prayer is one of the most basic aspects of the Christian life. It is also one of the most difficult for me. Perhaps it is for you as well. I always find myself second-guessing my prayer requests. Is that really what I should be asking for? Is it really best that this conflict at work disappear? What if God has put this in my life to teach me perseverance or patience? Then I should really be praying for strength to persevere, or for patience, rather than for God to remove it. What if I’m praying for the wrong thing?

Romans 8:26-27 tells us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in our prayers because we do not know what to pray for as we should. This tells us two things. First, it is normal human experience to not know what to pray for. Second, even if I pray for the wrong thing, the Spirit intercedes to help me pray for the right thing. But if I’m praying for the wrong thing, and God has to correct my prayers anyway, why bother praying for anything? I’ll still pray to confess my sins and to praise and thank God, but why bother making requests if God already knows what’s best?

C. S. Lewis is helpful here:

“In every action, just as in every prayer, you are trying to bring about a certain result; and this result must be good or bad. Why, then, do we not argue… that if the intended result is good God will bring it to pass without your interference, and that if it is bad He will prevent it happening whatever you do? Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn’t, they’ll remain dirty (as Lady Macbeth found) however much soap you use. Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything? We know that we can act and that our actions produce results… It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method.1

Lewis goes on to say that the difference between praying for something to happen and causing something to happen is that in prayer God can either grant it or not grant it. God is the one who decides whether or not our desire will come true. But our actions are more directly tied to the results. And they are often terrible. Suppose, for example, that I want someone to die. If I pray for that person to die, will they? Of course not. Prayer is not voodoo. God will not grant that prayer and cause someone to die just because I prayed for it. But suppose instead of praying for their death, I decide to shoot them. If the gunshot is fatal then they will die. There is a crude directness to our normal actions.

Imagine if you never made a friend because the friendship might end poorly. Never took a road trip because there might be a car accident. Never went to a doctor out of fear that God might not want you to be healed. If our actions and our prayers are simply two different ways in which we affect the world around us, then this is exactly what we do in our prayer lives when we only pray for God’s will, or worse yet, fail to pray at all out of concern that we are praying for the wrong thing.

God has allowed us to act in this world in ways that affect the nature of reality. When you eat a sandwich, that sandwich is no longer there. You have altered reality such that the sandwich no longer exists. Our actions really affect real events. And so do our prayers. We see this throughout the Bible:

  • Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife because she was childless. The LORD was receptive to his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. (Gen 25:21 CSB)
  • Then the people cried out to Moses, and he prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down. (Num 11:2 CSB)
  • Then the LORD was receptive to prayer for the land, and the plague on Israel ended. (2Sa 24:25 CSB)
  • So the man of God pleaded for the favor of the LORD, and the king’s hand was restored (1Ki 13:6 CSB)
  • But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. (Luke 1:13 CSB)

We can pray with the same confidence with which we act. More so, actually, because God may lovingly choose not to grant our wrong requests. With our actions, what’s done is done. With our prayers, we have direct access both to the power of God and to the goodness of God. God is able to do whatever we ask, but He is merciful enough not to grant us our foolish requests. So “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil 4:6).

Resources on Prayer

A Praying Life by Paul Miller

“Work and Prayer” in God in the Dock by C. S. Lewis

Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer by C. S. Lewis

Praying the Bible by Donald Whitney

1. From the essay “Work and Prayer” in God in the Dock.

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