Earlier this month while grocery shopping, I engaged in conversation with another shopper for a few minutes. She noticed the big, ugly, black post-surgery boot I was limping around in and asked the status of my foot. I assured her that things were going well, and in response she asked for my name — so that she could pray for me by name.
I was surprised, and touched that someone with whom I had such brief contact would pray for me. More importantly, that she had made sure she knew who I was so that the prayer would be specific.
Over the past couple of weeks I have given that interaction a lot of thought. I recalled other times someone has said they would pray for me — and times that family prayers included a petition for a special blessing for me or another family member.
Although I have thought about prayer in many ways, including how, when, why and for what we pray, I have not really considered the importance of specificity in our prayers. I suspect that too often I assume that God knows the specifics so I may deal more in generalities.
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Elder Neal A. Maxwell, an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, “We too often pray in generalities rather than specifics. A vague prayer is hardly a prayer at all.”
In the Book of Mormon we are directed to pray over our fields and flocks, which in a less agrarian society would translate to our businesses and jobs and other important matters of daily life. Jesus specifically instructed his followers that they should pray for their wives and children. (3 Nephi 18:21)
In commenting on that scripture, Elder Maxwell added that we should do so by name “so that our family members hear themselves being prayed over.” Hearing a petition to Heavenly Father for a special blessing being offered by one’s family member — or by a friend or church congregation — brings a sense of love and worth as an individual and child of God.
Just as we should be specific in who we pray for, we need to be specific in what we pray for. Not just for others, but for ourselves. If we are praying for forgiveness of fault or sin, we need to be specific. Not that God doesn’t know our sins, but being specific and admitting those weaknesses out loud (in private prayer) together with promises regarding those faults, helps us own them while asking for God’s assistance in dealing with them.
Identifying a specific weakness and our plan for dealing with it is much better than just praying to be stronger and more righteous.
One of the factors leading to generality in prayer is not giving thought to our prayers before we open our mouth and begin. That results in vagueness and repetition. If we consider what we specifically want to discuss with God before we begin, we will be prepared to pray and our prayers will be more focused.
When we pray can also affect the specificity of our prayers. Elder Maxwell stated: “Fatigue tends to produce prayers that are hasty generalities. This suggests that to pray only just before retirement at the end of a taxing day is to adversely affect the content of our prayers.”
We need to be honest in our prayers. When we talk to the Lord about the problems in our life, or the things that we need assistance with or decisions we are making, we need to be specific. If we can’t or won’t deal directly with the concerns in our life, our prayers will be vague as we skate around our unwillingness to make a personal change.
I recall a passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck decided he should pray to be a better boy — but in the course of his musing he arrived at the conclusion that his proposed prayer would be a lie, because although he could make his mouth say he would do the right thing, he knew that he really wasn’t going to do it. He could not pray a lie.
Whether we commune with God vocally, silently, through meditation or song, God hears us and responds. He encourages us to pray always. We need not limit ourselves to a set time for prayer, but should pray when we feel the need or are inspired to offer thanks or adoration for the blessings that we receive.
And when we pray, we should pray with intent and specificity.
Glenna M. Christensen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.