I never heard of “unspoken” prayer requests until I was out of college. And the first time I heard the phrase, I was thoroughly confused. What sort of strange spiritual magic was this? Was I being given access to the Illuminati of the Christian world? (Note: No I don’t believe the Illuminati are somehow behind “everything”, from 9/11 to Pumpkin Spice everything (an atrocity) to the assassination of JFK.)
I knew about “popcorn” prayer, which is when a group of people prays in random order, “popping” from one person to the next. I really think the prayer marketing team could have come up with a better name for that one. Ping pong prayer? I’ll have my team go to work on this one.
I knew about “pawkward” prayer, which is popcorn prayer that goes terribly wrong. The leader prays first and then waits for someone else to pray. And waits. And waits. Terrible, crushing silence.
The pressure builds. The leader mentally pleads with someone, anyone, to break the suffocating silence. Everyone starts feeling awkward and terrible about themselves, and they mentally plead with the leader to put them out of their misery. But once the silence reaches critical mass, it is physically impossible to overcome.
Eventually, the leader will mutter a pathetic, “Amen,” and everyone will go their separate ways, careful not to make eye contact with the leader.
I knew about second cousin, fourth removed prayer, which often occurs in small groups. A person will ask for prayer for their mother’s aunt’s brother cousin Tony, who has an ingrown toenail and has to undergo a minor surgical procedure to have it removed.
I knew about traveling mercies prayer, which is a sacred kind of prayer that can ONLY be used when a person is going somewhere far away. (Side note: “Traveling Mercies” would be a great name for a Rich Mullins cover band. Somebody should get on that.)
But this unspoken prayer business was new to me. Was this some sort of super-spiritual prayer that involved mental telepathy? Was the request written on paper in a secret code that everyone but me knew about? I was thoroughly mystified.
Here’s what I learned. When a person has an unspoken prayer request, it means they have a need that is so sensitive, they don’t feel comfortable giving even the vaguest details.
Now, this is probably just my immature mind, but when someone tells me they have an unspoken request, my mind immediately goes to worst case scenarios.
Their Ponzi scheme finally caught up with them and they’re on the lam from the IRS. And yes, I’m pretty sure “on the lam” is the phrase criminals use when they’re fugitives. Trust me, I’ve watched a lot of TV and know how criminals think.
They had to borrow money from a guy name Vinny (All these guys are named Vinny – trust me on this one) to cover church bingo gambling debts, and now Vinny ain’t too happy.
They’ve developed a highly contagious rash that results in nasty boils and can be passed on through eye contact.
I realize these are outlandish, extreme situations, but if you can’t even give me a single generic detail, I’m not exactly sure how to handle that.
My prayers usually end up something like this:
I pray for Eric, who is having some sort of problem…with something. At least, I think he’s having a problem. Maybe someone else is having a problem? Help him (or her) trust you or stop worrying or stop sniffing cocaine or start praying more or stop stealing from the offering basket or start reading their Bible or stop gambling large sums on NASCAR. Or whatever else the problem is…I don’t have a lot of info here. Anyway, please do what you need to do.
I’m sure I’m the only person who struggles this way. To quote George Costanza, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
I don’t, after all, have the greatest track record when it comes to praying for people. Someone will ask me to pray for them, and I assure them I will be in deep intercessory prayer for them all week.
Then I see them at church the next week, realize I didn’t pray a single time, and do one of two things.
1) Utter the world’s fastest prayer. As the person approaches and panic seizes me, I blurt out a prayer at lightning speed, kind of like the Micro Machines fast talking guy.
2) I slowly disappear into the crowd so I can avoid the massive awkwardness. Kinda like this.
So I’m probably not the best person to be weighing in on the relative merits of unspoken prayer requests. When it comes to prayer, I’m not the person you’re looking for (subtle nerd reference to Star Wars there).
And here’s the funny part. I actually think there’s a place for unspoken prayer requests. Yeah, the concept is kind of weird, but prayer itself is weird, in the best possible sense.
It’s weird because God invites us, even commands us, to ask him for things. Maybe read that line again.
God, the One who owns everything and everyone, who owes us nothing, loves it when his kids bring their requests, no matter how mundane or silly, to him. And let’s be honest, most of our requests are pretty dumb, at least in the big picture.
When I ask God to help my children be more respectful, usually what I’m really asking is that they would annoy me less and stop wanting to borrow my iPad which I KNOW THEY’RE GOING TO BREAK BECAUSE THEY’VE ALREADY BROKEN A BUNCH AND I BOUGHT THEM A KINDLE, WHAT MORE DO THEY WANT FROM ME, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP.
Sorry. Momentary lapse.
But when it comes to prayer, God is staggeringly open and generous. There aren’t many guardrails on the words, “Ask and you shall receive.”
And the Bible even seems to make some space for unspoken things. There are many times when we don’t know what to pray. All we can manage is, “God, please.” And yet, the Holy Spirit knows what we need and translates those requests to God.
So I’m okay with unspoken prayer requests. They fit well with the weirdness of prayer.
Stay weird church.
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