Written by Adam Whitescarver | Executive Director
What if I pray the wrong thing?
Fear of getting prayer wrong should never be an excuse for not praying. For starters, philosophically, this is nearly impossible for us NOT to do. It’s unreasonable to avoid prayer because we think we might botch it; such would be a horrific and ungodly form of paralysis by analysis. We’re finite, imperfect beings. God is literally beyond perfect and infinite. Even if we pray Scripture we can pray the right things wrong by praying with selfish desires.
Secondly, there are several examples of people who pray or desire the wrong things and yet God still blesses them.
Take for example, Abraham. “And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before you!’ God said, ‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly.” -Genesis 18:18-20.
In the context of this passage, Abraham is basically afraid and unbelieving. He thinks God won’t fulfill His promise concerning his wife having a son, so Abraham prays something he can fathom actually happening. To this prayer, God says, “Nope.” But even in the midst of rejecting Abraham’s prayer, God does not lightning bolt anybody. Instead, He gently corrects his friend as to what was actually going to happen AND still, in a proper way, answers his prayer.
God knows our desires.
Then consider King David who had it in his heart to build a temple. God answered “no” yet simultaneously commended the king that he did well to have such an idea in his heart (1 Kings 8:17-18). David got more than a pat on the back though. He was also told, “the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house” (2 Sam 7:11); we know from further study that this “house” would be the royal line of David through which Christ would come and every nation on earth blessed. That’s quite the consolation prize! Granted, David isn’t praying here, but this principle can easily apply to prayer because it has to do with one’s heart desires being laid bare before God. In this case, David got better than he wanted.
But what if my prayers just feel selfish?
Then how do these passages reconcile with James’ sobering warning, “You ask and you do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3)? We know from experience and self-awareness that there may be some cowardice, anger, selfish gain or unbelief in our requests, so how do we end up like Abraham and David?
James’ thoughts shouldn’t be negated. We don’t want to come to God with self-centered cravings—but it’s not always easy for us to tell what exactly is going on in our hearts, and sometimes we find ourselves in situations with more than one possible “right” answer. We could legitimately be asking questions of ourselves like this: “Does God want me to have such and such a thing or opportunity, or am I only wanting that for myself?” or “If it’s great for me does that mean it’s also great for the Kingdom? How do I know if I am being genuine here?”
Fortunately, James doesn’t get into complex scruples concerning our unique situations. In the same passage he sums up how to ask in a way that prevents our asking for reasons of selfish gain; he closes his argument by going on to explain, “But He gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:6-7).
Here’s the connection between vv.3 and 6-7: if I humble myself before God (v.6) then I will be submitted to Him and what He wants (v.7). If I am submitted to Him, then it means that I am not interested in what I want, but in what He wants because I know that He is God and I am not and He knows best when I don’t. In approaching Him with this attitude, I may want something and clearly state it—asking that I might receive—but I am no longer asking wrongly to spend it on my own passions because I have submitted all my agendas to God (v.3).
Christ modeled the exact same thing for us:
He asked His Father if He could just skip the Crucifixion yet submitted Himself all in the same breath, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). That He was the sinless Son of God proves that praying the wrong thing and asking for what we want isn’t wrong to do, provided we are submitted to God. Even so, God blessed even Christ in the midst of praying the wrong prayer. Immediately following this prayer an angel came from Heaven and strengthened Him (Luke 22:43) and Christ was thus empowered to continue praying and finally bear His Cross in order to win many sons to glory, as well as an incomparable eternal reward.
So what do I pray for? How do I pray?
Honestly and boldly ask God for things. It’s not a sin to do so, and He already knows what is on the tip of your tongue. Ask for miracles. Ask for mighty provision. Ask for great glory. Ask for an escape to what is killing you. But do so in submission to the will of God. If all God’s people approached Him so, who knows what blessings would be released, how God would gently transform and correct us, what strength we would find for our trials, and what souls for His Kingdom we would win.