The definition of prayer that we have been using throughout this book suggests that we should pray “for such things as God has promised, or ac- cording to his Word, for the good of the church.” When we pray, what sorts of things ought we to pray for? One way of answering this question is to say “everything,” appealing to Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” A more literal translation is “Do not be anxious, but make your requests known before God in all prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.” In anxiety-producing circumstances, then, it is fit to turn to prayer. Rather than worrying, which is of no value (cf. Matt. 6:27), God brings peace by way of prayer (Phil. 4:7). Prayer (proseuchē), supplication (deēsei), and thanksgiving (eucharistias) do not remove us from those things which make us anxious; rather, they put us in nearer fellowship with our loving, adoptive Father who is able to bring us through these situations. Establishing this broad principle, namely that we should feel freedom to pray in any circumstance when we face the pressures of life, can help reassure us that no pressure is too small nor too large for prayer. But what specifically ought we to seek in prayer?
In the ancient church, the philosopher-teacher Origen suggested that we should pray in ways shaped by Scripture: “pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28); “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:38; Luke 10:2); “pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41; Mark 14:38; Luke 22:40); “pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath” (Matt. 24:20; Mark 13:18); “and when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases” (Matt, 6:7). More recently, Don Whitney suggests there really are only a few categories of things that we typically pray about: family, future, finances, work/school, Christian ministry, and what- ever our “current crisis” happens to be (which often involves one of the other categories). Over the course of our lives, we do find ourselves praying about these circumstances and needs, even if the list might be expanded. But saying that we might pray about “everything” can sometimes be overwhelming. It is impossible to list every conceivable specific prayer we might offer, but it is helpful to think briefly and categorically about our requests. I want to suggest several categories of things that we might pray for.
We Should Ask for Continuing Spiritual Growth
As we noted in an earlier chapter, salvation is by grace, through faith; it is God’s gift (Eph. 2:8). God saves us from our sin, but he does not wholly remove us from the presence or effects of sin in this life and thus we continue to pursue spiritual growth (sanctification) over the courses of our lives. The apostle Paul is very clear that God wants us to experience continued growth, for as he wrote to the Thessalonians,
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For this is the will of God, your sanctification. (1 Thess. 4:1, 3)
The particular path of sanctification for this church involved sexual purity and marital fidelity, but the general truth holds: “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (4:7). Thus we ought to pray for continued growth in holiness: asking that God would give us a greater desire for holiness, that we would remember that our holiness is a reflection of his character (1 Peter 1:15), that we would remember that without holiness no one will see God (Heb. 12:14), that we would strive to put to death the deeds of the flesh through the Spirit (Rom. 8:13), and so forth. As we consider other kinds of prayer, we might intercede for holiness on behalf of our children, our spouses, church members, or others; we might thank God for evidence of continuing sanctification; we might adore him for his perfect holiness; we might confess our weaknesses and uncleanness before him.
We Should Ask for Growth in Virtue
A second category of things we ought to ask for in prayer involves growth in virtue. Remembering the priority of faith and God’s “divine power,” Peter encouraged Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5). The participle pareisenenkantes (“make every effort”) shows the diligence required to pursue growth, and this deliberate pursuit surely includes prayer. The object of this effort is aretēn, what the ESV translates as “virtue” and what New Testament scholar Andreas Köstenberger calls “excellence.” As philosopher J. P. Moreland says,
A virtue is a skill, a habit, an ingrained disposition to act, think, or feel in certain ways. Virtues are those good parts of one’s character that make a person excellent at life in general. As with any skill (for example, learning to swing a golf club), a virtue becomes ingrained in my personality, and thus a part of my very nature, through repetition, practice, and training.
Plato suggested that the “cardinal” virtues were courage, self-control, wisdom, and justice. Aristotle added generosity, gentleness, friendliness, truthfulness, and ambition to Plato’s list. Historically, Christians have included faith, hope, and love as three “theological” virtues. As with all good gifts, we recognize that the virtues are patterns of living we must walk in but that they are grounded in God’s character. Thus we should pray that God would help us walk in these virtues, even as we intercede for others in light of these characteristics and praise God as the source of all virtue.
We Should Ask for the Success of the Gospel
Christians ought to pray that those who preach the gospel would have success. Paul asked Christians at the church in Colossae to pray for this purpose: “[P]ray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3–4). Paul sought prayer on behalf of himself and his fellow missionaries, but his request was broader than their own abilities and performance; he wanted God to provide occasions for them to declare the gospel and he wanted clarity in his own proclamation. Paul’s goal in these requests is that the message of Christ would bear fruit; with God granting occasion and clarity, people would hear and some would respond. In our own prayers, we ought to pray for those who proclaim the gospel, even as we pray for our own opportunities to proclaim it. We might pray for us and other Christians to be intentional in turning conversations toward the gospel; we might ask God for courage to proclaim Christ crucified, for eyes to see the opportunities that God has opened for us, and for a willingness to make the most of these opportunities. Remembering that Paul was imprisoned when he made this request might stir us to also re- member Christian prisoners and ask God to give them occasion to proclaim the gospel of Christ in prison, even as we ask for their release from prison. We might pray for sensitive hearts that allow us to focus on the gospel of Christ even in the midst of our own persecution and suffering. Above all, we pray and thank God for the success of the gospel that we have beheld and believed.
While we ought to pray at all times and in all circumstances and for all things, having some general ideas of specific things we might pray about, for ourselves or others, can help us stay focused in our prayers and remind us how to pray when things are going right. We pray for continued growth in the gospel, in virtue, in holiness. We might also pray for God to care for particularly vulnerable people: orphans, widows, sojourners. We might also pray that God be glorified in our lives and in the lives of other Christians.
 Origen, Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Rowan A. Greer, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), 83.
 Donald S. Whitney, Praying the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 18–19.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 43–44.
 J. P. Moreland, Love the Lord Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), 106.
 Bernard Adeney-Risakotta, “Virtue,” Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed. Glen G. Scorgie (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 822.
This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Prayer by Joseph C. Harrod, which is available now! If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
Relevant questions about prayer answered from the whole witness of Scripture
Praying is often the most common yet least understood practice of Christian spirituality. In 40 Questions about Prayer, scholar and teacher Joseph C. Harrod shares biblical insight on the nature and practice of Christian prayer. Harrod’s emphasis on searching the Scriptures results in a trustworthy, practical guide to a vital aspect of Christian belief and behavior, equally appropriate for seminary courses, Bible studies, and personal understanding.
The accessible question-and-answer format of 40 Questions about Prayer allows readers to explore the issues they care most about, such as these:
- Does prayer change God’s mind?
- Does God hear the prayers of unbelievers?
- What does it mean to pray in Jesus’s name?
- How does prayer affect evangelism, spiritual awakening, and revival?
- What does it mean to pray “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)?
- Do physical postures affect prayer?
Want to learn more about the 40 Questions Series? Visit the new website 40Questions.net!