Columnists > Voices

High-risk prayers

John Newton suggested mountain-sized requests

Issue: "BMOC: Big mandate on campus," Sept. 14, 2002

When's the last time you prayed-specifically-that God would do something that seems to you to be absolutely impossible?

We tried that a few days ago when a group from my church gathered for lunch. Afterwards, I asked everyone there to share with us a specific prayer request that was approximately in the same category as moving a mountain.

So Rachel, who is a high-school senior, asked that we pray with her that she be able to go to college, and end her college years debt-free. Mike asked that we pray for his brother, who grew up in a Christian home, but is now a confirmed homosexual. Bess, who is recovering from a stroke that nearly took her life a few months ago, asked us to pray for relief from recurring nightmares. Kingsley asked prayer for her husband, who is usually with us, but can't get rid of terrible headaches after a car accident more than a year ago. Paul, a second-year college professor, faces the mountain of 11 hours of lecturing every week. Nancy, a home-schooling mom, is starting the new year of school work while also hoping they can get their new house enclosed before cold weather gets here. My wife Carol asked prayer for our oldest daughter, six months pregnant with twins, that she'll be able to carry them full term.

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Sound familiar? In one sense, they're the requests you hear in prayer meetings everywhere. Christians anywhere and everywhere in the world lift up similar lists to their heavenly Father every day of every month of every year. It's common stuff, in one sense-but not for the people making the requests. For them, they're unmovable mountains. When you pray specifically about such issues, you up the ante. The answers you seek are difficult, and they're highly visible. You get what you're asking for-or you don't. You're expressing your trust and your faith in God by leaving the biggest issues in your life with Him.

So shift your focus a bit and ask the question in a slightly different way. When's the last time you prayed-specifically-that God would do something that seems absolutely impossible on the national or global scene?

When did you, either by yourself or with several other believers, pray that God would bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians? When did you pray for the Christianization of Afghanistan-or, if you really want a mountain-sized request, of Iraq? When did you last pray for the capture of Osama bin Laden? Or for his conversion?

How long has it been since you have prayed specifically for the end of abortion in America? That God would provide a cure for cancer, or for AIDS? That the rate of divorce and the scourge of broken homes would be cut in half?

A few folks have told me that they use WORLD magazine as a prayer list every week, interceding through its pages and begging God to do impossible things not just among His own people, but also in American society at large and throughout the world. These folks read the news only partly as a report on what has already happened; they read it even more as a description of how the stage might be being set for God to do remarkable things in the future.

This is, to be sure, high-risk praying. When you merely ask God to make you a less prideful person, or to end the evil of racism in the world, the answer (or lack of an answer) is by definition so vague that you haven't put too much at stake. It's a little hard to know for sure whether God has answered or not-and that makes the prayer relatively safe.

But when you ask Him to move a specific mountain, everything you believe about prayer-and even about God Himself-is up for grabs. That's why such praying properly steers clear of merely selfish wishes. Do you really want to end up looking foolish just because God decides you don't need the new Jaguar you decided was your "impossible mountain"? No, the essence of this kind of praying is always outward-focused and centered on others, not ourselves.

But what a huge frontier that still leaves us! Yes, it's right and proper that we bring our personal and parochial requests before the God we pray to. But we trivialize His power when we stop there. "Thou art coming to a king," wrote John Newton in 1779; "large petitions with thee bring: for His grace and power are such, none can ever ask too much."


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