Links Daily Devotional

Prayers and Requests

So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. (Acts 12:5, NIV)

Tell me what you make of this whispered prayer: “Lord, I know it’s only a weekend game with my old buddy John, and I know it doesn’t mean much in the context of the vast cosmos, but please let me make this putt! Please! Please!”

If you want to say pitiful to describing such muttering, I won’t stop you. But if we want to think beyond that, think biblically, we might begin by asking ourselves whether this is a “prayer” or a “request.”

I say we may want to go in this direction for two reasons.

We want to hold on in faith to the understanding that God hears our prayers and that he knows the depths—and desires—of our heart.First, there is the matter of considering whether our prayers are “answered.” Very often when we are seeking God’s ear—and what we have in mind is that he will respond with a particular sort of favor—we are disappointed when it seems he has not heard, or at least has not given us what we want. We may, at such a time, say, “God did not answer my prayer.” But of course he has answered; he has answered in a way we did not want. He has not granted our request.

Second, there seems to be a delineation at some places in Scripture between the prayer and the request. In Ephesians 6:18, Paul wrote: “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” In Philippians 4:6 the apostle offered similar wording: “…in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Is it true, then, that prayers and requests are not the same, or was Paul simply linking synonyms?

In Paul’s letters, the English is not the same because the Greek is not the same. And passages like the one we have highlighted today in Acts 12 are not particularly informative. It would make sense that the believers were earnestly petitioning God for Peter’s release from prison, but the Greek Luke employed is the word for “prayer” not for “requests.” Maybe the believers were asking that Peter’s faith would be firm come what may—though this too would have been a request. However they were praying, they had a particular outcome, material or spiritual or both, in mind.

So where are we left in this thinking? For one, many will tell you that requests are a subset of the greater range of prayers (including thanksgiving, confession, and praise). Thus it is not wrong to call requests prayers. But more than this, two things may need tweaking in the way we consider prayer. First, we want to hold on in faith to the understanding that God hears our prayers and that he knows the depths—and desires—of our heart. And second, we want to be careful that our expectation of his “answer” to our prayers does not allow him only one option. This does not mean we should not tell God exactly what we desire, but rather it means that we tell him alongside our asking that we know how fully he understands the situation and that we’re open to whatever answer he deems best. From this perspective, we will see answers not according to our human framing but with an eye to God’s limitless wisdom.

Jeff Hopper
March 28, 2016
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