The Challenge of “Unexplained” Prayers

Contributed by William (Bill) Badke, MDiv, MTh, MLS, Associate Librarian of ACTS, internationally known author on literacy, columnist for Online, Online Searcher, novelist, and teacher of undergraduate and graduate research courses.

What is an “unexplained prayer?” I suppose we could simply assume that it is no prayer at all. But I’m thinking of something different, a situation where someone asks for prayer but does not reveal the details. This could come as a result of a deep, dark secret that should not be shared with the world, a situation that is embarrassing or traumatizing, or something that would break a confidence if explained. In any case, a request like that leaves us in the dark. We don’t know what to pray for because we’ve been given no details.

It’s easy, when this happens, to imagine that the requestor is not facing a real problem. If it was important, after all, why wouldn’t we be given more information? And it’s frustrating because we have a naturally tendency to want all the juicy details so we can pray intelligently.

This is a pastoral issue as well because it’s all too easy to do damage when people ask us to pray but give us incomplete information. Here are some of the risks:

  1. We can minimize the value of the request, either directly or tacitly, because we can’t picture its nature in our minds. Consider the difference between someone saying, “Something bad is coming” and telling you, “An asteroid will hit your house in twenty minutes.” You are much more likely to act on the latter but see the former, without clear details, as not entirely real.
  2. We can fail to recognize that the person asking for prayer may be deeply traumatized. Unexplained prayers might address the most emotionally and situationally dark life events you could imagine. People who ask unexplained prayer requests are likely in need of support beyond that which we usually provide to those with spoken prayers.
  3. We can fail to understand what to do with an unexplained prayer. Certainly, it’s easy to offer something like, “Lord, our sister is expressing a need that she is not able to explain to us. Please help her,” but this does not address how potentially serious the problem may be. Somehow in our prayer, we must respond to the underlying disturbance that led to the request. Thus, something like this is better: “Lord, our sister has a prayer request whose details she can’t express. We know that she is deeply concerned about this situation, and we ask not only that you answer her prayer but that you speak into her heart with your comfort and assurance.” You’re not praying this way to help the Lord glean more details (foolish thought) but to minister to the person making the request.

Is an unexplained request, however, even a thing? Can we ask the Lord to answer a prayer with no content or details? Yes, we can. Romans 8:26-27, in a context of the Holy Spirit’s care for believers, speaks directly about praying when we don’t know what to say.

 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (NIV)

The Spirit translates our deep longings into words that the Father, who hears us, understands. Certainly, this verse is focused on our own prayers for ourselves, but the principle is there: The Holy Spirit can take things not said and transform them into prayers with content, prayers that the Father answers.

It’s very important to take unexplained prayers seriously. Those who ask for them have overcome a lot of hesitancy even to ask for prayer and are facing stresses we know nothing about. To minimize such requests is to miss the point that these types of prayer requests can be filled with trauma and very deep need. They are like red flags in the prayer room. We need to respond with fervent words and look for opportunities to minister to the requestor on an ongoing basis.

Don’t probe for details or minimize unexplained prayer. Treat it as a ministry opportunity of utmost importance.

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