Some say the devil is in the details, but God is involved in the details, too. In fact, the details are what matter the most.
The Lord’s Prayer certainly has its generalities (give us this daily our daily bread and forgive our sins/debts/trespasses). And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with joining Miss America pageant contestants in asking for “world peace.” However, it’s when our prayers get specific that they gain honesty, testability and clarity.
When I talk to God in prayer, I often hesitate to name what I want out of fear that it is too far “beneath” God or that, perhaps, what I truly want wouldn’t be in line with God’s will. Even if my prayers are pathetic, even by human standards, honesty is the best place to start with anyone whom you want a sincere relationship. So, when I pray, I say exactly what I hope for, grieve what breaks my heart, and express thanks for things that give me joy.
Here’s an example. Don’t say, “God, be with Erica” or “God, please help Erica.” Instead, pray something like, “God, please help Erica by providing her with a new career that brings her joy.” Or, “Please open a door for Erica to find meaningful employment so that she can provide for her family.” Specific prayers force the prayer to imagine what it is that is needed, rather than just acknowledge a bad situation.
Prayer is hard work. It requires honest confession and struggle, along with the vigorous work of envisioning a solution. In fact, it is in prayer that we often find the solutions we seek, and this is why prayer leads to action. Our dreams of restoration compel our action to bring that envisioned future into reality.
For example, if you struggle to know how to pray, a good exercise is to imagine things as they should be. Wherever you find brokenness and pain, close your eyes and imagine what it would like if the pain was healed or the relationship found peace. Prayer needn’t be anything too complicated. Instead, it can be a moment where you imagine things as they should be and then say, “God, let it be.”
Athletes and other high performers often spend significant amounts of time “picturing” their success. The dream precedes reality, and the clearer the athlete can picture that perfect putt or slam dunk, the more likely the person will be able to perform the action in reality. Our prayers need to be granular and specific because our lived reality is that way.
Specific prayers compel the prayer to take a stab at what it is that God should be doing, exposing our deepest desires so that we can test them against the Divine will. Often, I am asked to pray for someone who is tremendously ill, and it requires great wisdom to know if I should pray for healing and a miracle or if I should pray for acceptance and comfort.
In our prayers we ask for and a imagine a better future aligned with peace, blessing and joy. However, there are times where our dreams and visions may not be aligned with the Divine vision. In moments like this, it is an opportunity to reflect on whether our prayerful visions are selfish, too small, or are in some way misaligned. When Jesus prayed in the garden before his crucifixion, he asked God to take away the cross (that’s a specific prayer!), yet still ended his prayer with the phrase, “Not my will, but your will be done.” Healthy prayers are specific, but always have an open door at the back end for God to do something better.
One the great side effects of specific prayers is that you can see if a prayer happened or not. In cases where a specific prayer is answered, thankfulness and awe is the reward. When a specific prayer isn’t answered, it remains an opportunity explore whether our prayers are in line with the Divine will. There is where prayer is messy, but at least it is honest and real. Some of the best answers God has given to my specific prayers has been “No.”
So today, when you pray for your “daily bread,” I challenge you to name what it is that you really need. You may be amazed to know that God is in the details. God doesn’t help people in general, God helps you and I in particular.
Rev. Dr. Chris Atwood is the senior pastor at Liberty Barn Church in Delaware.