Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
Prayer is a powerful thing. If you ask around, you’re bound to find people who have incredible stories of how God made a real difference in their lives because of prayer. Many have stories about God-giving provision, transformation, healing, and comfort as a result of praying. Christians all over the world know the potency of prayer.
But even though prayer is something that we likely do every day, people sometimes misunderstand what the Bible says about it. Let’s take a look at five often misunderstood verses about prayer and five errors that come from reading them incorrectly.
Error #1: You Should Get Whatever You Pray For
Mark 11:24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
If we read this verse without any context, it can certainly seem like the Bible promises that we can get whatever we want by simply asking and believing hard enough. If I want a new car, all I need to do is ask God and believe that. Then, sooner or later, there will be a shiny new car in my driveway. This magic formula is the secret to getting whatever I want. But, the Bible must always be read in context and the context can help us better understand what Jesus says.
James 4:3 helps us as well, showing that when we ask, our motives make a difference. God is not fooled by our words, he knows our motives as well.
Error #2: There is No “Right” Way to Pray
If we read just a little further on in Mark, we find that Jesus gives us a command. When you pray, forgive. Forgiving others is a necessary condition for receiving God’s forgiveness. So, Jesus says, there is a right way to pray and a wrong way. We pray rightly when we are obedient to God’s commands and we stand in a right relationship with him. When we are obedient and want what God wants, we won’t pray for selfish or silly things. We will ask according to God’s will and then he is sure to answer our prayers.
Error #3: You Should Pray for Your Enemies to Be Destroyed
Psalm 10:15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none.
Anyone who’s read through the Psalms likely noticed that in addition to the serene poetry of Psalm 23, we also find some angry, even disturbing passages, which ask God to bring severe judgment. These are called “imprecatory psalms.” One example comes from Psalm 10:15. Here we find David praying that God would “break the arm of the wicked and evildoer.” We should immediately note the context tells us that David is asking God to demonstrate his righteousness. David wants justice, not personal vengeance.
As Christians, it certainly makes sense to ask God to bring justice and righteousness to the world. But should we ask God to break the arms of the wicked? The first thing we should do is follow the command of Christ to love our neighbors and to turn the other cheek. We should pray for their repentance and that God would save them. But, like David, we can also ask that God vindicate us against injustice.
Error #4: You Should Pray for More Money
1 Chronicles 4:10 Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked.
Jabez prayed that God would bless him by enlarging his borders, meaning that he would acquire more land. The Bible simply says, “God granted what he asked.” The question is, should we pray like this? God tells us that he wants to bless us after all (Matt. 7:11).
While some people might think it was selfish or greedy for Jabez to pray like this, the Bible says that it is acceptable to ask God for material things. Certainly, God does not owe us anything, and material prosperity does not correspond to God’s favor. Instead, His favor is on whoever does His will. If you ask anything according to His will, He will do it. But, as we highlighted earlier, if you ask with selfish motives, you should not expect the answer you are hoping for.
Error #5: You Should Pray Every Moment of the Day
1 Thessalonians 5:17 Pray without ceasing.
The Apostle Paul writes that we should “pray without ceasing.” When I first read this passage years ago, I thought it meant that I should spend all day, every day, with my eyes closed and hands folded, praying to God. But that is likely not what Paul meant. This command comes at the end of a letter and, in letters of Paul’s time, it was common to end the letter with hyperbolic statements. It’s like when your mom tells you, “I’m always thinking about you.” She isn’t literally thinking about you at every second. Instead, she means she thinks about you a lot. Paul says we should pray like that. We should pray a lot. We should constantly be praying. It should be our consistent habit. As we go throughout the day, we should foster an awareness of God and turn to him with all our concerns and give him thanks for all his blessings.
It’s clear in Scripture that prayer is incredibly important, but that it’s frequently done wrongly. We can thank God that He saw fit to provide us with so many examples of how to, and how not to, pray. God wants us to approach Him boldly, frequently, and personally, but He is not a magic genie granting wishes. This shortlist of misunderstandings highlights the reality that God cares about how you pray.
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