Warning: Unpopular opinion ahead. Many unspoken prayer requests are a bit of a sham.

When my husband learned he needed open heart surgery, one of the first things he told me after leaving the doctor’s office was, “This needs to stay between us for now—not even an unspoken prayer request—got it? As soon as I am in surgery, you can let people know.”

Jim didn’t want to field questions about his condition or receive advice as a response to requests for prayer. That would only heighten the anxiety he sought to manage. Knowing even unspoken requests can trigger questions, Jim opted out of sharing his need.

I raised an eyebrow, sighed, and nodded. I didn’t approve of his need for confidentiality, but I did not betray his trust. Instead, I asked the Lord to change Jim’s mind. Here is how God worked:

Jim’s surgery was scheduled for the same day our home would start a major kitchen renovation. We had planned the renovation for months, and we opted to move ahead despite the surgery. Our refrigerator would need to be relocated prior to demo day, but Jim was given strict orders not to move or lift anything over ten pounds.

Jim pressed his hands against the side of the refrigerator, but I cried foul. “Nope. How about calling one or two guys in your Bible study?”

Jim frowned. “Then I’d have to tell them why I can’t help.”

I nodded. “Yes, you would. But if one of those men were headed to a major surgery and didn’t tell you, how would you feel? Besides, I think they would understand why you aren’t making an announcement to the entire church. They will keep your need confidential.”

Jim made the calls, and every man “just happened” to be available.

As Jim shared the reason he could not help with moving the refrigerator, a look of concern fell on every man’s face. Any angst about making his need known to these trusted brothers evaporated. After they relocated the refrigerator to the garage, Jim’s brothers lingered to pray with my husband. I snapped this picture as a reminder of the kindness of God.

An avalanche of people praying for my husband prior to his surgery would have been reassuring to me. Instead, I couldn’t even offer a shout-out on social media: “Our family needs your prayers! God knows the need, thnx.” But would that have moved more people to pray? Praying for others is hard enough, how likely is it that others would pray for an unknown need? Only the Lord knows who might have paused to pray.

My husband died ten days after his surgery.

 A well-intentioned person told me I should have ignored Jim’s request and at least sent out an unspoken prayer request, so that “more people” could have been praying. He quoted James 5:6, “Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.”

More people? Are the prayers of a trusted few as effectual as the many? In other words, can God change his mind because fifty more people prayed, presumably for a specific outcome?

No. We don’t pray to change God. We pray to Him to change us—hence the reference to being healed of sin, not physical illness. Christians have a relationship with a personal God who desires we not keep that relationship private. We are not called to live anonymous lives to the glory of Christ. Sharing a specific need with a trusted few allows us the opportunity to build deeper relationships with one another. That honors God every bit as much as “powerful testimonies of God’s triumph over sickness.”   

In contrast, while I am certain that unspoken prayer might quell gossip, it can also diminish community. Do those praying for an unspoken prayer request ever hear back on how God worked? When the circumstances are unknown, God’s mercy in the situation may be equally unknown to us.

To be clear, there are situations when an unspoken prayer request is preferred and appropriate, but they should also be rare. I am not suggesting you air out all your specifics on social media. Instead, who are the small circle of friends who you know love you and would pray for you specifically without judgment? Who are the people with whom you can share these kinds of requests:

Please pray for me, I am struggling with the sin of gluttony.

Please pray for me, I am withholding forgiveness from my parents.

Please pray for me, I haven’t prayed or opened my Bible in weeks.

Or in the case of my dear husband, “Pray Philippians 4:6 for me, I am facing a scary surgery, and I am anxious.”

Though I didn’t have legions praying for Jim prior to his surgery, I knew God was able to work through the prayers of four men as much as he could four hundred. Jim said he felt a greater peace after sharing his weakness with God and these men. When I look at this picture, Galatians 6:2 comes to mind: “bear one another’s burdens.”

These men thought they dropped what they were doing to do a favor for a friend. Instead, God had called them to the sacred privilege of preparing their brother for eternity, a kindness for which I will forever be grateful.

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