A few years ago I visited a church that was passionate about prayer. So passionate that they inserted all of their church family’s prayer requests in the bulletin so their members could pray for one another throughout the week.
But as I read through the long list of over 30 prayer requests on the light-blue insert, I started to notice a pattern—Pray for his cancer. Pray for their safe travels. Thank you for her successful surgery.
After reading through every prayer request, guess what was missing? Anything spiritual.
Every single prayer on the list was for physical blessings, for temporary and not eternal issues. Which felt odd for a Christian church that exists primarily for eternal issues!
But I have noticed that this is how most churches pray. When someone urgently finds me before church with a desperate need for the church’s prayers, I am 99.2% certain what categories the request will fall into: Health. Sickness. Accidents. Surgery. Recovery. Tragedy. Loss. I have yet to meet some desperate Christian who needs the church to pray for his courage to evangelize or her self-control versus jealousy or their trust in God’s commands about money.
That bothers me. Not because those physical prayers are bad in themselves, but because those prayers are bad by themselves.
And because that’s not how Christians prayed in the Scriptures. A few years ago I skimmed through the New Testament with two categories in mind—prayers for physical things and prayers for spiritual things. I noticed that when the crowds came to Jesus and the apostles, 75% of the time they prayed for physical stuff.
“Heal my daughter please!” “Give me sight, Jesus.” “Got some spare change, Peter?”
But when God’s people prayed or the apostles asked for prayers in the New Testament letters or Jesus himself petitioned the Father, the numbers flipped. Only 25% of their prayers were for the “daily bread” of physical wants while 75% of their prayers dealt with spiritual needs. Paul wrote four letters from prison and yet never asked for his release! He was too busy praying for courage to evangelize his captors.
But you don’t have to repeat my research to believe that. Just recite the prayer our Lord Jesus taught us: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:9-13).
(Note: If you want to quarrel with the wording, take it up with Jesus. I’m just quoting him verbatim!)
Did you catch the balance? Out of all the requests and petitions Jesus puts in our mouths, only one is explicitly physical—give us daily bread. But the true thrust of the prayer is about eternal matters—God’s name, God’s will, and God’s glory.
And that changes the way we pray. Is it okay to ask God for your successful surgery? Absolutely. But perhaps we should add three spiritual prayers too. “Father, let your name, the very thought of you at my bedside, be so wonderful that I can rejoice even in the hospital. Let your will be done as I let my light shine to every nurse and doctor who walks into my room, proving that you are a God whose plans can be trusted. Lead me not into the temptation of thinking you are punishing me because of this pain. In Jesus’ name I ask it. Amen!”
At my Life Group (small group Bible study), we have seven values we try to uphold. One of them reads, “spiritual not physical.” During prayer time, that value reminds us to fix our eyes on what is spiritual and eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18). As I often say, if God’s name is truly holy among us and his will is our greatest passion, there is nothing that can steal our joy or rob us of our peace.
And that is something worth praying about.
Pastor Mike Novotny has served God’s people in full-time ministry since 2007 as a pastor in Madison and now Appleton, Wisconsin. He also serves as a host and speaker for the Time of Grace television program and contributes to the written resources of Time of Grace Ministry. Pastor Mike is married to Kim and has two daughters.
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