How to ask for prayer, yet keep everyone in the dark about what it’s about.
When I was in high school church youth group, our youth pastor would pray during the service, and take prayer requests before he “opened up” in prayer. Anybody want a real live capital-P P
So we would. Big test coming up; we want God’s help, either in improving our memory, or compensating for our rotten study habits. Big game coming up; we want God’s help to do our best, and of course we’d like him to confound our opponents. God, help this kid I know whose dating life is a wreck (followed by some gossip about the juicy details, which is totally permissible because it’s a “prayer request”—yeah right). God, help this kid I know whose family life is a shambles. Help me, God, ’cause I have stress for one of the myriad reasons kids stress.
And just about every week, one of us—different kids every week, sometimes more than one—would pipe up, “Unspoken.”
What’s “unspoken” mean? It’s short for “unspoken prayer request.” It meant they wanted to ask God for something, and wanted us to pray for it as well. But they wanted the request to remain just between themselves and God. We didn’t need to know what the request was. God knew; that was enough.
Pastor understood this, so when it came time in his prayer to bring up the unspoken requests, he’d say something like, “Lord, about the unspoken requests: You know their needs. Please take care of them.” There ya go.
I was not the best Christian in high school. More of a giant hypocrite. But I’d invite friends from school to my church’s youth group, ’cause it was fun. Some of them were Christian and knew all about unspoken requests. And some wouldn’t, and somehow I was called upon to be their tour guide to the Evangelical subculture.
This particular week, some kid—let’s call him Mervyn (and thank you, Random Name Generator)—had been the only one to ask for an “unspoken,” and I got the expected question: “What’s ‘unspoken’ mean?”
“He needs God’s help on something embarrassing,” I said. “My guess is it’s giving up porn.”
Like I said, not the best Christian. (But not a bad guess. Mervyn really did need to give up the porn.)
Thing is, I’d said this loud enough for my fellow hypocrites to overhear, and think it hilarious. For about a year thereafter, this became the regular youth group joke about what “unspoken” really meant. Whenever someone contributed “Unspoken,” whether it was Mervyn or not, someone in the group would say, just below the youth pastor’s hearing, but not below the kids’, “Porn.” Followed by our giggles, and an irritated look from the youth pastor, who didn’t know what had just been said, but knew it was something unsavory. Eventually he found out, read us the riot act, and that stopped.
I admit though: To this day, whenever someone contributes “Unspoken” as a prayer request, a little voice in the back of my head pipes up, “Porn.” It amuses me. Bad Christian.
But it indicates an unsafe environment.
Here’s the problem with unspoken prayer requests: Bad Christians like me.
Whatever Mervyn’s prayer request was, he really wanted it prayed for by the group… but he really didn’t trust the group. Nor should he have, considering there were jerks like me in it, who’d make fun instead of being sympathetic and supportive. Or other jerks who’d take what he said in confidence, and blab it everywhere. Either way, if you share real problems, they’d be all over the school by morning.
Some prayer groups just aren’t trustworthy. Youth groups are definitely one of them. They, and groups of immature Christians exactly like them, are the reason such a thing as an unspoken prayer request needs to exist. They shouldn’t need to exist: Churches should be safe places, full of safe, compassionate people. But a lot of us aren’t—because churches minister to sinners. Don’t be surprised when you discover a few sinners in there, spoiling things.
But some prayer groups are trustworthy, and in these groups we should be able to unburden ourselves. Pay attention to what sort of people are in your prayer groups. Are they solid people? Can they keep confidences? (Can you?) If you don’t know any such Christians, go find them. If you can’t find ’em in your church, perhaps you need to switch churches. The unspoken request should be an emergency measure, not a usual feature. Go find some Christians you can be real with.
And when you discover rotten apples in the bunch, do make sure to warn the prayer leader immediately.
Y’see, part of the purpose of group prayer is that we make our requests to God together. We agree about these requests, and pray as a group for ’em.
Most of the time, our agreement is pretty automatic. Christians don’t usually bring inappropriate requests to our prayer groups. We tend to know better. Say I’m really angry with my wife, and I really wish God would push her down a flight of stairs. I know that’s not an appropriate prayer request, so I won’t make it. I have that much common sense, anyway.
Now let’s say I don’t have that much common sense; I’m too angry to think straight. Well, the group will know better, refuse to pray for any such thing, and try to talk me down. They won’t pray for the wife to take a tumble, but they will pray I learn to control my anger, among other things.
But now imagine I replace “God, shove her down the stairs” with “I have an unspoken prayer request.” What’s the prayer group gonna do? Reject the request and talk me down? Unless the Holy Spirit warns one of them there’s something off about me, they’re gonna assume I’m praying for something worthy, and pray, “Lord, you know Leslie’s need. Please grant his request.”
Don’t worry: God’s not dumb. He has no intention of saying yes to any such thing. He’ll ignore the request. But what happened to the prayer group’s ability to correct me and minister to me? Ain’t there. I stole it from them.
Okay, let me pick a less looney example. Say my car broke down, and I need a mechanic but can’t afford one, and I pridefully don’t want the group to know how poor I am. (Or I really don’t want them to know me all that well, either way.) So instead of sharing my real need, I turn it into an unspoken request. Again, they’ll pray for it, and God may help me with it, or not; up to him. But again: What happened to the prayer group’s ability to minister to me? There might be a mechanic among them, or one of them might know one. One might be able to loan me a car, or give me a ride, or even give me money. I could get all sorts of practical help if there are generous Christians in the room. But unless the Spirit tells on me, none of this is gonna happen.
And that’s on me, not on God. I need to be forthcoming, not withholding. We all do.
Same with sin. Everybody sins. But few people care to confess any sins in a prayer group. We’re afraid of what people will think of us. Unnecessarily so: In nearly every case, people think, “Big deal. I’ve done worse.” Yet we always assume they’ll be horrified—as if they’ve never sinned in their lives, and we’re too foul to be in such company. It’s an irrational fear. ’Cause it’s the Fear, the devil messing with us lest we act in faith.
When you join a prayer group, avoid unspoken prayer requests whenever possible. Confess. Share what you can. Don’t cut your fellow Christians off from a chance to minister, to remind us God forgives all, to encourage us to go and sin no more. And watch God use your boldness to help you grow.