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The Importance of Teaching our Counselees to Pray Specifically 

The Lord wants us to pray specifically, but fear of “getting it wrong” can keep us praying generically.

Feb 29, 2024

Megan and Sue spent time catching up after church. Sue shared about her trip back east to see her son’s family, including the difficult news that her five-year-old grandson, Connor, had been recently diagnosed with an early-stage lymphoma. The prognosis was hopeful, but it weighed heavily on Sue’s heart. She asked Megan to pray that the Lord would heal Connor, to which Megan replied, “Absolutely, Sue! I’ll be praying for God’s will to be done.” Sue muttered a deflated, “Thank you,” gave Megan a quick hug, then walked to the car with her husband, hurt and confused. 

Well Meaning Misuse of God’s Sovereignty 

Why was Sue hurt by Megan’s genuine commitment to pray for Connor? It wasn’t the commitment to prayer, obviously, but how Megan framed it. Sue—a loving, godly grandma who wants desperately for Jesus to heal Connor’s cancer—wanted her friend to pray for healing. Instead, Megan said she’d pray for God’s will. There’s nothing wrong with praying for God’s will—His will is perfect, good, right, and best! The issue comes in when praying for God’s will becomes a substitute for speaking truth that gives grace and fits the occasion to the believer who needs encouragement and hope (Ephesians 4:29b; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). 

I would suggest that in the fictional yet true-to-life scenario above, God would want Megan to pray for Connor to be healed. “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 sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15). Far from being a formulaic way to ensure healing, James teaches that God wants us to come to Him with specific needs, praying for specific answers. While these two verses have been isolated by some to teach a “name-it-and-claim-it” theology of healing, taken in the broader biblical context we know that all prayers are submitted to the Lord’s will. “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:15).  

Megan’s impulse to pray for God’s will is spot on and well-meaning, but the reason it hurt Sue is that it was actually a misuse of the glorious doctrine of God’s sovereignty. The truth that God is meticulously sovereign over all things can sometimes be used as a platform for detached pietism, when a brother or sister in Christ really needs compassionate and practical counsel and care. Any time we find ourselves neglecting one part of God’s Word in favor of another, we’re out of bounds. When it comes to prayer, I’ve observed that concerned believers sometimes stop short of praying specifically and helpfully because they are not holding the truth of God’s sovereignty in tandem with His love and goodness. 

Take the Widow’s Way 

Jesus tells a parable to help us understand what biblical prayer looks like in the light of God’s sovereignty:  

Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.” (Luke 18:1-7) 

The widow had a need—justice. She was wronged in some way, and the judge had the ability to make it right. She came to him repeatedly with a specific request. She didn’t simply say, “Judge, here’s the situation; do what you think is right.” She got specific, and the judge knew exactly how she wanted the whole thing to turn out. She didn’t know what the judge’s will was, simply that until she had her answer, she was going to keep coming—specifically. 

Jesus uses this parable to teach us not only how we might pray, but how we ought to pray, without losing heart. We know the God who is sovereign over all things, but we don’t know His sovereign will for how things will go. He nevertheless wants us to take the widow’s way and come to Him with specific requests (so long as those requests aren’t sinful). 

God Wants Us to Get Specific from the Heart 

One of the most common counseling struggles is anxiety, and the Scriptures tell us exactly what to do with it. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). A vital part of helping counselees through anxiety is teaching them to pray, and to pray specifically. Paul says that God wants to hear what’s burdening us at the heart-level, and then from the heart to trust Him with not only what we want, but also to rest in the peace that He will do what is best. Implicit in the specific request is the possibility that God, in His wisdom, will say no. He doesn’t chastise us for praying for an outcome He’s decided against. He’s pleased in the praying, and He’s glorified in the trusting. 

Specific Prayer is Not the Prosperity Gospel  

Sometimes the fear arises that specific prayer seems like the prosperity gospel—using Christ for what we can get. While this has often been the case, it’s only the case where Scripture is misinterpreted and misapplied. The Apostle John was no prosperity preacher, yet we find him modeling specific prayer: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (3 John 2). When we let Scripture hem us in from lopsidedness in our communion with God, we can pray specifically without fear, trusting God’s wisdom to answer appropriately, and hope in His power to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). This is the kind of prayer God wants. 

Pray Specifically—at Home and in Counseling 

So, let’s honor God’s sovereignty and take His love seriously by coming to Him with specific requests (Hebrews 4:14-16). Let’s examine our motives according to His Word, pray according to what He has revealed in Scripture, and take His greatest glory as our highest aim. We can pray to land that job, for our child to be healed, and for our strained relationships to be reconciled. Let’s teach our counselees to get specific as they wait on the Lord in their specific trials. Let’s help them to examine their motives and praise the Lord no matter what His answer is. And ultimately, let’s teach them to pray as Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).