Praying Past Our Preferred Outcomes

It is one thing to be asked to pray for another person. I’m happy to do it. I want to do it. I must admit, though, I am not always faithful to do it. However, it is another thing to be told what to ask God for in the situation. I’ve noticed that often requests for prayer come with specific instructions on how to pray. I call it a “please pray for my predetermined positive outcome” request.

And while I’m questioning our accepted methods of requesting prayer, I’ve got to ask, why do we seem to make it our goal to get as many people as possible praying toward our predetermined positive outcome? Is it that we think God is resistant to doing what is good and right but can be pressured by a large number of people to relent and deliver? Do we think that the more people we recruit to pray for the same thing will prove our sincerity or improve our odds?

Praying for a Miracle?

I suppose I really began to think about these things during the season in which we were caring for our daughter, Hope, who was born with a fatal genetic disorder. I remember getting a call from the secretary at our church. “We’ve put you on the prayer list,” she said, “and we’re asking people to pray that God will do a miracle and heal Hope.” Honestly it was a little awkward to tell her that while that was fine, it wasn’t the way we were praying. Our reluctance to pray in this way had nothing to do with whether or not we thought God is powerful enough to do that kind of miracle. This is the God who spoke the world into being. No question he could do it.

So how were praying for Hope? I wish I could tell you that I was a great woman of prayer in those difficult days. Truth is, I wasn’t. I was really grateful that so many people were praying for us, no matter what they were praying, because I didn’t have many words, mostly just groans and tears. I was grateful to know that the Holy Spirit was interceding for us with “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:36). When I was able to sputter out a prayer, it was shaped most profoundly by something a friend said to me on the phone a couple of days after Hope was born. She said that I could be confident that God would accomplish the purpose he had for Hope’s life in the number of days that he gave to her. So in my prayers I began to welcome him to accomplish that purpose. I prayed that my own sin and selfishness and small agendas would not hinder his purpose. I prayed that that his purpose for Hope’s life would be enough for me, even a joy to me.

Not Meaningless or Random

If we really believe that God is purposeful in suffering, that our suffering is not meaningless or random, shouldn’t that affect how we pray about the suffering in our lives and in the lives of others? As it is, we pretty much only know how to pray for suffering to be removed—for there to be healing, relief, restoration. Praying for anything less seems less than compassionate. But shouldn’t the purposes for suffering we find in Scripture guide our prayers more than our predetermined positive outcomes? We could make a very long list of purposes for which God intends to use suffering according to the Scripture. But here are just a few:

  • To put God’s glory on display (John 9:3)
  • To make the life of Jesus evident (2 Cor. 4:10-11)
  • To live out genuine faith (1 Peter 1:6-7)
  • To cause us to depend on him more fully (2 Cor. 1:8-9)
  • To reveal hidden sin or keep us from sin (2 Cor. 12:7)
  • To experience that Christ is enough (2 Cor. 12:9)
  • To discipline us for holiness (Hebrews 12:10-11)
  • To equip us to comfort others (1 Cor. 1:3)
  • To make us spiritually mature (James 1:2-5)
  • To make us fruitful (John 15:2)
  • To shape us into Christ’s likeness (Romans 8:29)
  • To share in the suffering of Christ (Philippians 3:10)

What would happen if we allowed Scripture to provide the outcomes we prayed toward? What if we expanded our prayers from praying solely for healing and deliverance and success to praying that God would use the suffering and disappointment and dead ends in our lives to accomplish the purposes he has set forth in Scripture? Scripture provides us with a vocabulary for expanding our prayers for hurting people far beyond our predetermined positive outcomes. Instead of praying only for relief, we begin to pray that the glory of God’s character would be on display in our lives and the lives of those for whom we are praying. We pray for the joy of discovering that the faith we have given lip service to over a lifetime is the real deal. We ask God to use the difficulty to make us less self-reliant and more God-reliant. Rather than only begging him to remove the suffering in our loved ones’ lives, we ask him to make them spiritually fruitful in the midst of suffering he chooses not to remove.

What Is Prayer?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism for Young Children asks the question, what is prayer? The answer: “Prayer is asking God for things which he has promised to give.” Are we praying for things God has promised to give—like his presence with us, his Word guiding us, his power working in us, his purpose accomplished through us? Or are we limited to praying only for what he has not promised to give—complete physical healing and wholeness in the here and now?

To go deeper than praying only for deliverance means that we approach prayer not as a tool to manipulate God to get what we want, but as a way to submit to what he wants. Through prayer we draw close to him in our need. We tell him that we will not insist on our predetermined positive outcome but want to welcome him to have his way, accomplish his purpose.

  • Todd Benkert

    Good article and I agree with the greater point, however, I would not exclude prayers for “positive outcomes” or enlisting others to pray for them. If you look at the prayers of Paul, or more specifically his requests for prayer — he does in fact ask many people to pray for his need.

    In 2 Cor 1, Paul asks for prayers for deliverance then gives his explanation in verse 11: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

    Here you see both a request for many to pray for a “positive outcome” and if God does deliver, the result that an overflow of thanksgiving for answered prayer by those who prayed.

    Thus, one reason I ask for many to pray is so that God’s glory is magnified by more people praying and trusting God and more people thanking God for answered prayer.

    • Tami

      Exactly! I hate to think that the pendulum of prayer would swing so wide from “Let me give God my laundry list” straight to “I will just pray that God’s will be done and not acknowledge that I really do desire a positive outcome.” Neither extreme is right.

  • Aprile

    Thank you so much for this article. One of the biggest things I’ve struggled to understand as a believer is the realtionship between prayer and the providence of God. I can’t say I’ve figured it all out, but as I have studied what the Scriptures say about prayer and the prayers of God’s people that are recorded in the Bible, I am seeing that more than anything else, prayer is the most practical way that I can express a heart of SURRENDER to the will of God. And if my prayers are only for positive outcomes (that satisfy my own selfish desires), I’m simply not doing that. I agree with Todd in that it is not necessarily wrong to pray for positive outcomes, and we see that throughout the Bible. God uses prosperity/safety/health as well as suffering to accomplish His work! But if the spirit of “not my will, but Yours” is missing in the words I speak to my Father (or ask others to speak on my behalf), I’m just praying my preferred outcome and missing the opportunity to taste and see how the Lord might use my pain for His glory and my good. I am forever guilty of trying to pray away my own sanctification!

  • Pingback: Glad to see this in black and white « More Than A Conqueror()

  • Judi Gordon

    We are called to bring heaven to earth. Jesus lives in us! And God’s will is NEVER sickness, etc,All of that came in from the fall of man. I agree with God help me to learn through this but Jesus healed ALL and never told people God would be glorified in their suffering!! And if Jesus is God in flesh aren’t we to be more like HIM? And where 2 or more agree……
    Anyway….let’s remember the enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy. It was not God’s will for this little girl to be afflicted. Why He doesn’t answer yeas all the time, I don’t know. I just know we are to be imitators of God and Jesus commanded us to :raise the dead, cast out demons and HEAL THE SICK.
    I think this article gives people a great way of copping out of not co laboring with God. Why would He give us dominion over the earth? Anyway……….I’m just sayin’………as the body of Christ, let’s not settle for understanding which is a type of control but pray for God’s will……again……healing…..and if God is the same yesterday, today and forever, then He’s still a God of miracles.

    • Steve

      Judi Gordon says “God’s will is never sickness?”

      Please provide scriptural support for such a position. I would humbly offer that the entire book of Job disputes your premise. And then there’s the “multitude of “blind, lame and paralyzed” near the pool of Bethesda in John 5. What about Paul’s prayer for his thorn in the flesh to be taken from him three times? God’s answer was not to remove this affliction but to demonstrate to Paul that His grace is sufficient.

      It’s perhaps easier in 21st century North America to subscribe to such theology but please tell my brothers and sisters in Africa who are faithful followers of Jesus and yet still watch their children die of malaria or chronic diarrhea. Tell them that it’s God’s will that their child lives, they just need more faith or they did not pray correctly or fervently enough or whatever.

      I have had the privilege of working in China since 1993. Tell my brothers and sisters still living in leper villages in southwestern China that it is God’s will for their numb limbs to be restored. Or for their missing fingers and toes to be regrown. Tell these faithful followers of Jesus that they are not pleasing God since they obviously have sickness and disease.

      And if it is ALWAYS God’s will for healing, then please, hesitate no longer. Go to the hospitals and empty the cancer wards. Release the healing power for the babies with cardiac problems. Visit the dialysis units and tell everyone there that you can pray for them to be healed and God will definitely do it. No? Then stop spouting such atrocious theology.

    • Jeremiah

      Judi, if we are to be more like Jesus, would that not mean that we are to suffer, and does not God bring all things to work together for good for those that are called according to his purpose? Would that not mean that he is in the end glorified?

  • Adam Ford

    Incredible. This is something I’ve always struggled with, but never read about. Thanks for this post.

  • Judd Rumley


    THANK YOU. I just buried a baby that lived 9 minutes. GOd’s will WAS death. The greatest testimony in all this was the young couple’s view of God. What they said forever shaped my view of the “miracle.”

    HOPE in God and pray for a miracle. That what they told us at an elders meeting where we prayed for God to work and placed our hope only in HIM not what He may or may not do.


    Judd Rumley
    Lead Pastor Eagle Bible Church

  • Janine Hewitt

    Great thoughts on praying scripturally, not according to our own predetermined outcomes. Thanks for writing.

  • Tom Brainerd

    In his commentary on Isaiah, John Oswalt writes:

    “For one to wait on the Lord is to know that he will probably not act on one’s own timetable, but that he will act.”

    I add: Not to mention that He probably won’t do what you expect.

  • Nick Watts

    Brilliant, compassionate insight, Nancy. Philip Yancey defined prayer as “that mysterious intersection where God and humanity meet and relate.” Oswald Chambers wrote, “The meaning of prayer is that we get hold of God, not of the answer.” I know these two quotes sound trite & cliche in light of human pain & suffering but, based on Scripture, the theology is sound i.e. sometimes we’re blessed with a specific answer to a specific prayer, sometimes not (2 Corinthians 12).

  • danny

    i would have to agree with todd in an earlier post. i love what you wrote but it isnt an either/or. you seem to be ignoring Scripture that definitely leads us towards also praying for healing in the here and now, as long as we can be satisfied with God’s will if such healing is not given. God is glorified in suffering, but he is also glorified when he heals, and asking for such is not only ok it is taught in Scripture.

  • Pingback: my hope is built | Kendra Dahl()

  • Steve Cornell

    Thank you! Much needed reminders on prayer! “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2). Gratefully, when “in our weakness, … we don’t know what God wants us to pray for, with wordless groans, … the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

    But perhaps we should see our desire for healing as part of the inward groaning “as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:23-24). Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. There is nothing wrong with longing for life over death and healing over sickness — these will be our final experiences in Christ. But as you indicate, we must pray with an eye on the “not yet” of redemption, while in this life, we are groaning, waiting and hoping.

    I’ve appreciated Phil Yancey’s transparency, “Prayer has become for me much more than a shopping list of requests to present to God. It has become a realignment of everything. I pray to restore the truth of the universe, to gain a glimpse of the world, and of me, through the eyes of God.”

    “In prayer, I shift my point of view away from my own selfishness. I climb above timberline and look down at the speck that is myself. I gaze at the stars and recall what role I, or any of us, play in a universe beyond comprehension. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view.” (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?)

    When I read your helpful words, I was reminded of a piece from the old eternity magazine: Some pray and die:

  • Pingback: Permanent Things()

  • Benton

    Absolutely excellent! Thank you, Nancy, for so eloquently articulating our need to pray in alignment with God’s Word and His revealed will; rather, than praying in attempt to manipulate God to our positive preferred outcomes. I have been greatly blessed by this.

    I have been praying this way for some time, and have been amazed at how much deeper and free (unburdened by guilt or shallow prayer hoping for only one outcome) my prayers have been. When we are praying for God’s purposes to be completed – which is not saying that healing is not His purpose in some situations – we are not left with a legalistic sense of failure and guilt when our petitions are not answered according to our wants. Rather, we look to the glory and honor of God, and can praise Him in all things.

    And as a side note, I don’t think Nancy was presenting an either/or argument in regards to praying for healing OR praying for God’s purposes to be complete. Her case was that our prayers should align with Scripture (not just the parts misappropriated by certain false teachings in the church) in such a way that we are not only praying for the desired positive outcome. Nor did it seem that she was making a case against asking others to pray for/with you, as she stated “I was really grateful that so many people were praying for us, no matter what they were praying….” Obviously, this is not a comprehensive treatise on prayer, but a quick and excellent call to pray in such a way that “the purposes for suffering we find in Scripture guide our prayers more than our predetermined positive outcomes.”

    In Christ,

  • Bethany

    I agree with Nancy’s overall point that we should not try to “pray our suffering away” – as if the goal is to have an easy, pain-free life. However, I think the examples of Shadrach/Meshach/Abednego and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane show us how to strike the right balance. We are free and encouraged to boldly ask for what we desire, but we must also submit ourselves to the Father’s sovereign will. So she is absolutely right about all the verses that speak to God’s work through suffering, but I don’t believe the conclusion is not to pray for healing or miracles.

  • Pingback: A Morning Peacock of Links | hobojarpen()

  • Pingback: Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog()

  • Pingback: How To Pray For Ourselves and Others During Trials – TGC Blog « iNehemiah()

  • Pingback: Praying Past Our Preferred Outcomes | Already Not Yet()

  • Pingback: Laudable Linkage « Stray Thoughts()

  • Pingback: thumb licks [4.9.11] | spreading the fame()

  • Joshua

    Suffering, in and of itself, has no purpose or meaning.

  • Pingback: Bethlehem Chapel » A Lesson on Prayer()

  • Janet

    Thank you so much for writing this article! This is spot-on for me as I think about all of my “predetermined positive outcomes” (which will likely lead to more problems, anyway)! From now on, I will approach prayer “as a way to submit to what He wants”. Again, Nancy, thank you so much & God bless you.

  • Alison

    I agree with Judy…Jesus Christ took upon himself all things…sickness & iniquity..for our healing. Job suffered & people were healed while Jesus walked the earth..before the cross…now we have every right to expect health.

  • Benton

    In response to Joshua’s statement that there is no purpose or meaning in suffering, and Alison’s statement that “we have every right to expect health,” if you read through the book of Job (and the rest of God’s Word), you’ll see those statements are not viable.

    I don’t mean that as an attack on either Joshua or Alison, but as encouragement, “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:14-16, ESV). After all, I’m certain that we have the same goal to, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, ESV).

    With that said, let me explain what I meant by the those aforementioned statements not being biblically viable.

    Neither Job nor his friends knew the purpose or meaning of Job’s suffering. We know because God revealed it to us in the first few chapters, but Job was not privy to this information. And in the end, God never revealed the purpose or meaning of Job’s suffering to him. Instead, God revealed Himself and His glory. That was sufficient for Job comfort, and it should be for us, also.

    Keep in mind, Job 42:7-9 all takes place while Job is still suffering. To make that point clearer: Job was reconciled with God and his friends while he was still suffering. At no point during the exchange between God and Job did He promise healing (chs 38-42). Job was comforted by knowing more fully the glory of God (Job 42:1-6), not because he was healed or had received a promise of healing. For all Job knew, his physical situation would not change. Nothing in the text reveals otherwise.

    It is true that God healed and restored Job, but that’s not the point of the story. God spends the better part of four long chapters – as we have it relayed to us in the Bible (chs 38-41) – revealing His glory, wisdom, sovereignty, and power; whereas, there are 8 verses that tell us about Job being healed and restored (Job 42:10-17).

    The emphasis on who God is, and that He is our comfort in suffering, seems to be the main point of the whole book. It is there that we find the purpose and meaning of our suffering: All that God has done and is doing – to include allowing suffering – is to further reveal His glory, in some way.

    That’s not to say that God is cruel and sadistic. Assuming such a thing reveals our ignorance of God and His ways. God reveals, through Himself and His Word, that He is always faithful; which means that we can always have faith in Him and what He is doing.

    These notes from the ESV Study Bible (Crossway, 2008) notes on Job 38:2 are especially helpful in understanding this:
    “Job had drawn conclusions about the nature of God’s rule from what was revealed on earth in his and others’ circumstances. However, he did not account fully for what is hidden from him, and thus his words cast a shadow on the wisdom and righteousness of God’s rule. In his speech, God will question Job in order to remind him that, even in what is revealed of God’s powerful and majestic governance of the natural world and its inhabitants, much is still hidden. And if this is true for creation and its creatures, how much more is it true in relation to the wisdom and purpose of the Creator?”

    Understanding that we cannot and will not know everything there is to know, as God’s ways are higher than our own, we can truly appreciate and comprehend verses like Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God ALL THINGS work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (emphasis mine). “All things” includes suffering and blessing.

    One more thing to consider, just a few sentences early, Paul writes these words (which were written AFTER Christ’s death and resurrection):

    “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:28, ESV).

    For this discussion key in on, “sufferings of this present time.” There is no indication here, or elsewhere in the full measure of God’s Word, that our sufferings have ceased, but that they WILL cease when Christ returns.

    But, I don’t want to push too hard in this direction and make it sound like God never heals or that we will experience anything but suffering. Rather, we count it all joy to suffer with Christ, and praise and glorify Him by participating with Him in all the things He is doing in our life. We don’t get to choose. We are not sovereign. We are not God. His grace is sufficient and He is always faithful. None of that means that there is no purpose in suffering or that we have a “right” to physical healing.

    We are promised something better than physical healing: The grace and presence of God! That is true healing because it makes us right before God, allowing us to be in His eternal presence. With all of you, I long for the day when we hurt no more; though that day has not yet arrived. Until that day comes we should rely on God’s faithfulness in blessing or sorrow, and rest in the comfort of His sufficiency “that for those who love God ALL THINGS work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

    In Christ,

    • Joshua

      What did that have to do with what I said?

      • Benton


        Perhaps I misunderstood your intent, but your original statement was, “Suffering, in and of itself, has no purpose or meaning.”

        The book of Job shows otherwise. We can never say that suffering has no purpose or meaning, because that is essentially us trying to take the place of God and dictate what does or does not have meaning. Also, Job shows that there is much about God’s will (His hidden will) that we do not have access to know.

        Does that clarify my response or am I completely missing the point of your statement?

        In Christ,

        • Joshua

          You are completely missing the point of my statement. (As a side not, I reject the idea of a ‘hidden’ will )

          Suffering and death, in and of themselves, have no inherent meaning or value. They are ontological shadows, parasites – enemies to be crushed and trampled and stripped of their power. God does not will them – they are utterly without purpose.

    • kelly

      right on! If suffering we learn who God is and we learn who we are…we either become bitter or we come to a better understanding of the depth of the suffering God chose for us and through our suffering we become more like Christ because we draw closer to him in our suffering. Christ is with us….that is the glory revealed in us when we come to that understanding. Death does have meaning, just as it did when we were saved by God. There is no fear in Death because it has been swallowed up….we rise to ever lasting life!

  • Pingback: Some Good Links « Coram Deo()

  • colin

    Regarding the statement below, how is that you can hinder God’s purpose?

    “I prayed that my own sin and selfishness and small agendas would not hinder his purpose”

  • Pingback: Expanding the Scope of My Prayers | One of the Thirsty()

  • Pingback: Pray for me… in THIS way… « The Passionate Follower's Journal()

  • Pingback: Passion Points | Three Passions()

  • Pingback: A Prayer Vocabulary | “But as for me, I will always have hope…” Psalm 71:14()

  • Pingback: Praying for the Suffering - How Should Christians Pray for the Sick? | Scripture Zealot()

  • Pingback: Praying Past Our Preferred Outcomes - Ransomed Man()

  • Pingback: Lord, teach us to pray | Trekking Through the Wilderness()

  • Pingback: Praying Past Our Preferred Outcomes | Joel A. Lindsey()

  • Pingback: Praying for a miracle? | My Journey()