Granularity of prayer

September 27, 2010 | 44 comments

I spend a lot of time thinking about how prayers of petition work. (Truth be told, one of my first thoughts after discovering that God exists was, “SO HOW DO I GET HIM TO GIVE ME WHAT I WANT?!” Which is why the title of my book will not be Adventures in Spiritual Maturity.)

On the one hand, I know that we are supposed to ask God for what we want, and that he does “answer prayers” in the sense of granting our requests. On the other hand, it couldn’t possibly work that way all the time. After all, if God were to give each of us every single thing we ever asked for, he wouldn’t be an omnipotent God; we’d be gods, and he’d be a wish-granting genie.

Lately I’ve been spending a fair amount of time out of my weekly holy hour simply praying about how to pray: if I want a very specific thing, should I just ask for it? Or should I just throw out a general “Thy will be done” prayer?

What I keep being drawn to think about is the idea of hitting the right level of granularity for my prayers of petition; I now use the first part of my prayer time simply focusing on how much to “zoom in” or “zoom out” on my requests.

Here’s what I mean by that:

Let’s say our car breaks down. It will cost $684 to fix it, but I don’t have the money, and I don’t have any way to get the money. My husband needs the car to get to work, so we must come up with the money immediately. Let’s think about the different levels of granularity at which I could pray about this. Here’s one extreme:

Lord, please send a man wearing a blue hat to arrive at my front door on Monday morning at 9:15 carrying $684 in cash, mostly in $20 bills.

That is an extremely specific prayer! Now, let’s move up a level:

Lord, please send me $684 on Monday.

Up a couple more levels:

Lord, please send enough money to cover the car repair, sometime before it negatively impacts my husband’s job.

Now, let’s move up so high that the car isn’t even necessarily part of the picture, and neither is my husband’s current job:

Lord, please let us continue to have the resources to meet our basic physical needs.

And so on. Especially when I feel like I’ve been begging God for something and my prayers are going nowhere, it’s helpful to ask myself: “Am I praying at the right level of granularity?” To use the car example again, if I’m praying that first, extremely specific prayer, maybe I need to “zoom out” a bit. Perhaps I was right that I’m supposed to pray about this issue, but the problem has been that level of detail I’m focusing on: instead of asking for $684 at 9:15 on Monday, the Lord is drawing me to turn to him with the request that my husband simply has some way to get to work this week.

What I’ve found particularly interesting about this sort of exercise is that it forces me to ask myself a critical question: “What do I really, ultimately want?” Is my deepest desire really for $684 per se, or to just get the car fixed, or that my husband just has a way to get to work, or we just have our basic needs met…etc.? It occurs to me that at the far end of the spectrum, when you zoom all the way out to the least specificity in prayer, you end up praying:

Lord, I just want you.

I know that it’s always good to turn to God with our simplest needs (even ice cream!); he is our Father, after all, and delights in hearing from us about even the littlest concerns. But I think that far too often my own prayers for very specific things have been motivated less by childlike trust and more by a desire for control. For me, the path to holiness might involve “zooming out” for a while; because I notice that, as I move from more-specific to less-specific prayers, I feel within me a change from wanting to be God, to simply wanting God.


  1. Jaimie

    This is great. I’m tweeting this!

  2. Christina

    Last night I had to give a brief talk after a late mass. I came in at the end of communion and knelt down and suddenly became very afraid (introvert here). I suddenly realized that most of my friends don’t go to this mass and there would be no one praying for me while I was up there. So I asked the Lord to please have one person in the congregation praying for me.

    Right then a good friend walked by ~right in front of me~ without seeing me. She is the type of person who prays always and I KNEW she would begin praying as soon as my name was mentioned and would continue throughout my whole talk. That’s just what she does.

    God loves us so much – it overwhelms me at times. I gave the talk with my insides in knots and yet no one knew a thing.

    This had some connection with your post – I know it did because I thought of it…but now I’m all teary-eyed and don’t remember it. Perhaps something along the lines of “it’s OK to ask for the specific things every now and then – because he sometimes answers just to show you how much he loves you.”

  3. Margo

    Jennifer, I LOVE this post so much! I love the way you describe the different levels of asking God for what we want. And I really enjoyed reading Christina’s response. I am going to take your advice and spend some prayer time praying about HOW to pray. Thanks for sharing this..

  4. Tamara @ Living Palm

    I spent about two hours last night trying to articulate — to a friend AND myself — this very concept. Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving me a “container” of words to put on what my heart and mind were trying to understand and describe. Just, thank you.

  5. Marc Cardaronella

    This is an interesting thought. Thanks for bringing this up. On the one hand, you have very trusting saints that pray for very specific, granular things and get them! They trust so much they just know God will perform a miracle and give it to them…even money to run the orphanage or something. On the other hand, you St. Thomas Aquinas who when asked specifically by God what he wanted and it would be granted to him said, “Only you Lord,” and that was the right answer. Makes you wonder.

  6. RebeccaF.

    Thanks for this! I have been anxious all month for specific needs. My husband lost his job in May and we have struggling so much. It’s getting down to crunch time.
    Our car insurance was canceled at the end of July. If I don’t have proof of insurance by Friday, our driver’s licenses will be suspended. Not just mine and my husband’s but also our three teenagers’. We have no way of getting a down payment together (over $600). Our two little ones are in daycare since my husband has been mowing lawns and any other jobs he can get but we owe $775 and that’s due this Wednesday. It was $850 but my husband did some work for the director and she very kindly took $75.00 off the tuition.
    Also, rent is due ($1175.00) on Friday and the electric bill is due Monday – over $400 because it’s one month late.
    Our sermon yesterday was on prayer and I’ve been praying without ceasing and trying to be anxious for nothing because this is an impossible situation and I can’t do impossible but God can.
    So I pray and I will live my life as a reflection of His love and for His glory no matter what happens this next week.
    I will remember that God is good – all the time.

    • Jane

      I will keep you in prayer Rebecca.

    • ~ Nona

      I am DEFINITELY praying for you.

      Please know that I will be praying for you for rest of this week, Rebecca.

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Rebecca – I’m so sorry to hear about what you’re going through! I’ll be praying for you as well.

  7. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    This is great! I should try this too.

  8. Susan

    Loved this! Especially this part:

    “On the one hand, I know that we are supposed to ask God for what we want, and that he does “answer prayers” in the sense of granting our requests. On the other hand, it couldn’t possibly work that way all the time. After all, if God were to give each of us every single thing we ever asked for, he wouldn’t be an omnipotent God; we’d be gods, and he’d be a wish-granting genie.”

    I’d never thought of it this way before but you’re put it into words beautifully! Thanks!

  9. Bill B (AKA Theocoid)

    Intercessory Prayer Content Management Theory? I wonder whether God uses Oracle for that database.

  10. Katherine

    I wanted to share the following story with you.

    I was praying at holy hour, after the noon mass one Wednesday, and my prayer was very specific.

    I was praying that I would see Christ in each person I interacted with, and treat them accordingly.

    Not two seconds after I prayed this a man and a women loudly entered the church and stared making repeated requests for food, saying, “I’m hungry!” They both seemed to be inebriated and very combative.

    I made the sign of the cross and went to them to explain where to get food from our parish hall, but they weren’t tracking well enough to follow directions.

    I went back and got my purse and motioned them to follow me.

    I led them around the church to the hall, when the man looked me in the eye and said, “I’m John.” I introduced my self to him and his friend and shook their hands.

    That more than anything else was what the man wanted. To be seen as fully human.

    My very specific prayer was answered immediately.

  11. Jackie

    Hi Jenny, I understand fully what you are saying . I always fall short with prayers of petition because I never know how or what to ask for . I just mostly trust that God knows our needs and to trust in His Divine providence and pray that things will work out for the best . What’s important is that you do pray . God knows what we need before we do and it gives us a golden opportunity to thank him for everything , even for a car repair that you can’t afford. When we pray the rosary, we are told , through the visionaries of Medugorje, to give our worries to Mary , and she will take care of them, and in return to pray for her intentions . God Bless You .

  12. Jane

    I’m praying that your car door gets fixed before you pop a disc. That is my prayer.

    In all seriousness, great post.

  13. Dean

    Once again, a homerun! So helpful. I do find that God often zooms out when I have zoomed in. He gives what I need rather than what I want; not the car,but the transportation. It leaves me with peace and a way to get from here to there. The examples of grandularity are 100% great. Good stuff for mediation and for formulating petitions.


  14. Andi

    I really, really loved this post. I have been finding myself zooming out a lot recently and I think you really hit it on the nose. The level of granularity with which I pray has always baffled me and this post is inspiring me to start seeking God with that issue more now.
    Praise the Lord that he is so much bigger than our small minded understanding!

  15. Marian

    What an interesting way to put this, Jennifer!

  16. Mary Beth

    Oh, I am a slug when it comes to the right granularity! Last night we were in Adoration, where we have been pleading for the life a firend who is father of nine and sick with cancer. I find myself asking for the big miracle: immediate and stunning cure. Done.

    And yet, I know that God is using so much of this process to work miracles in so many poeple’s lives.

    And then I think, well, if I wasn’t such a sinner, then Sean wouldn’t have to go through this so that I could learn lessons about all the things I am stupid about.

    And I guess, that’s why Christ was crucified – and I participated in it. And it is stunning to think that Sean offers up his suffering for slugs like me.

  17. Ghost

    Hi, Please feel free to delete after reading, as this comment has nothing to do with the post. If your blog is still hosted on Blogspot, I beg you, please adjust your template so that the blogger toolbar shows up at the top once more. I subscribed to your blog, using the Blogspot toolbar, back when I had a lot more reading time, and I’ve enjoyed it, but now I really need to pare back on my reading, but the ONLY way to unsubscribe in Blogspot is to click on that “follow” link on your blog again, and it’s no longer there! I have tried every suggestion in Blogspot’s help forum, and that’s the only way to unsubscribe. Please put the link back!

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      I am no longer on Blogger, so I have no way to add that toolbar back. Sorry!

      • Ghost

        Oh, well. That explains why there is no “stop following” option. Thanks anyway.

  18. Allie

    I had just been praying about this for the past few days – thanks for such a clear description!

  19. Matt G

    Whenever I ponder the idea of prayer my mind always goes back to a child asking his father for something. They might be very specific (“Can I have a red fire truck for my birthday? I want it to be big! And have a bell and flashing lights and an extendable ladder and a fire hose and…”) or it could be very general (“Ice cream!!!”)

    In those moments it doesn’t really matter to God whether we are specific or not. He knows what we want. But just like the child, the more specific we are, the more we need to realize that we might not get exactly what we ask for. There’s nothing wrong with being specific, as long as we are grateful for whatever God does give us (and that we are open enough to recognize it!).

    The power of prayer is letting God know we’re ready to receive His blessings. God is constantly showing His love to us, but when we ask for something specific because (assuming what we are asking for is good for us at the time) He is more willing to grant it because He knows we will recognize His gift.

  20. Gina

    Good food for thought. Thank you!

  21. Jennifer G.

    You have such a gift! You have such a beautiful way with words….you’re able to clarify things in a way that makes certain topics just click for me! Plus, you!! (Not in this post, but in other posts, I will literately be laughing so hard that I am crying….I love love love your style of writing!) Thank you for all that you share and put out there.

  22. Geomama

    As a geographer, I love the zoom in/out analogy (we’d talk about scale rather than granularity). I struggle with how specific to be in prayer as well. How do we balance asking for a detailed answer with openness to God’s will?

  23. Alice

    Dear Jennifer, thank you SO much for this. I’d been struggling with prayer for days, and this helped me to pray tonight with a renewed and open heart and with holy tears. So, thank you, and thanks be to God.

  24. Laura

    Great post! I always have to tell myself, “Stop asking for things!” because whenever I have a moment of non-rehearsed prayer, I’m always asking for something…then I get nervous and add something in from a rehearsed one like “by the way, blessed are you who listens to prayer”. But I like your way of thinking about this; often I will simply ask for help in being open to whatever comes—and I end up being confronted with opportunities I wouldn’t have picked up on otherwise. Or I end up reacting differently to something than I would have otherwise, and don’t notice until later that I really took that (previously irritating/difficult) situation in stride.

    I mean, you’ll want what you want, but you’ll get what you need.

  25. Rob

    Great post i went up and down in prayer should i ask for this or that. Then one day it hit me,now I just ask our Lord to allow me to love as he loves and the knowledge to know the Fathers will and the strength to carry it out. You know our Father truly knows what is best for all of us, we just have to trust him

  26. Catholic Bibliophagist

    Granularity — that’s a great image! Another way to visualize, “Lord, I’m asking for this, but may your will be done — not mine”

  27. Jennifer

    I love the term granularity. So perfect. This is a great form of prayer as reflection–a way of growing and gaining inner insight, which is the fruit of prayer itself!

    Which is to say–starting with the man in the blue hat and the exact amount of money, is exactly what might bring you to the ability to “zoom out”.

    I have to say, for myself, though, I am REALLY glad that God will take care of the basic need encapsulated in my most narrow prayers, whether I have the energy or the insight to locate it myself, or not. Releasing our anxiety into prayer is a big act of trust–I suppose the real trick is realizing that if the exact outcome doesn’t arrive that it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been answered.

    Sometimes, my prayers are virtually formless, a sort of silent begging, and a desperate need to feel His presence, which can take the form of a need for $684 exactly, oddly enough. 🙂

  28. Donna

    I’ve never trusted myself to petition the Lord for the “right things” so I would always pray for the grace or virtue to do/say/find/understand what God wanted or for God’s will. But this fall … I really am praying that my son’s freshman football team will win just one game by the end of the season!!! Doesn’t matter which team they beat or by how much … just one “W” for the books!!

  29. Josephene Kealey

    Perhaps the granularity can be put all at once into one grain of prayer. Like, I’d say, “Lord, I feel this work needs to be done before our baby is born. Please help me, and help me trust in You in all things. Thank you for answering my prayer.”

    I ask God about specific things all of the time, and I know He’ll answer them better than I could imagine wanting, because He knows my heart’s true desires better than I know myself.

    I don’t think there’s a conflict between “help me find the money to fix my car” and “help me love You better.” ‘Cause if you don’t get the cold cash, you can trust He has a better way (THE way) to solve the situation.

  30. Trisha Niermeyer Potter

    I can relate to this post, and I’m glad that you came to the conclusion that’s most important for us to come to in prayer: that above all else what we really want and need is God. Many times over the years, I’ve prayed the following prayer numerous times throughout the day, especially when getting hit with multiple challenges aka opportunities to trust Him even more deeply. “You, Lord, are ALL I have, and You give me ALL I need. My future is in Your Hands. Lord I pray for Your will.”

  31. Manny

    Granularity? Zooming in and zooming out. What a great way to look at it. To be honest, the only petitions I ever ask God is to bless me and my family, to have mercy on my soul, to help someone in need, and to help me be a better person.

  32. Liesl

    Thank you so much for this post! I have been praying about how to improve my prayer life lately, and I’ve found that a lot of times, I just pray “Thy will be done” – but it feels so much more satisfying (even though I still sometimes wait for answers!). I’ve also started praying for “help me figure out what I need to pray for” – because I know as I am looking for direction in my life, I need to zoom in more specifically, but I can’t figure out what it is… so I’m hoping this prayer works too!

  33. The Sojourner

    This is beautiful. Thank you.

  34. lailani

    Ooooh, I really liked this post. This particular topic has been one I have thought on much lately. Especially due to others who believe one should be very specific. But I lean towards your conclusion. 🙂

  35. Deborah

    I struggle here too and I think it ultimately comes down to trust. If we trust in the Lord would we even BE praying for stuff we want or think we need? Shouldn’t we know that He will provide?

    We had a tough family situation in May and initially I found myself praying for what I thought we needed, but eventually it turned into something like “Lord, you know what I think I want/need, but I trust that You will guide us to the right path and provide us the means we truly need.” Our prayer was granted, although in a very different manner than I ever anticipated and many blessings have come since.

    Jesus told St. Faustina that lack of trust in Him caused Him more pain than many other types of sin. Can’t find the direct quote right now, but it’s certainly thought-provoking.

  36. MelanieB

    Love this! What a great metaphor. I try to make my prayer sort of spiral up from the tight focus/very granular to the big picture. So it might go something like this: Dear God, $684 is a lot of money… where am I going to get that? Help! Ok, ok, I know I have to trust that you are going to help us out. But yeah, I know it might not be a big pile of money landing in my lap. Well, whatever it is you decide to do, I’ll try to remember to be grateful for what you have given us. Oh yeah and maybe this whole thing is because I’m supposed to be learning how to trust you more? Please, God help me to stop worrying so that I can rely on you with confidence instead of freaking out like I don’t believe you will take care of us. Give us this day our daily bread…. Yeah, you told us to pray that. So can today’s bread be a car that works? Or some kind of transportation. Um Thy will be done…. So whatever happens let me see your hand it it. Let me trust you. Help us to be good stewards of what you’ve given us. Oh but wow that’s a lot of money…. no, no I’m trusting you to take care of us. Even if this is supposed to be one of those life lessons where everything falls apart, I’m learning how to rely on you, right? That’s the goal, God, You and me… trust and love.

    I allow myself to ask for the specifics, to think about and dwell on the specifics. But I try to move myself away from them and to thinking about the bigger picture. And I usually try to follow up that kind of an internal conversation with saying the liturgy of the hours and often find that the reading for the current hour seems remarkably apropos to what I’ve just been praying and sheds light on it in a new way and helps me move a bit closer to that bigger picture awareness.

    Which sort of goes back to that question you asked some time ago about opening the Bible to find an answer in times of trouble. I meant to post a comment and then got distracted by screaming kids and never got back to it. But here’s what I would have written: I don’t really do that; but when something is weighing on my mind, I think about it, try to pray and see the bigger picture and then pray the LOTH and it seems like whenever I do that God does speak to me very directly in the words of the day’s psalms and prayers.

    Funny how the same answers keep popping up in my head to different questions. I guess I’m really meant to tell you that?

  37. Matt

    The first sincere prayer I ever offered in my life (and the one I’ve been offering ever since…for the past 9 years, 7 months, and 3 days) was this:

    “Lord, help me to more perfectly reflect your Love in this world, as once it was reflected to me in my very darkest hour.”

    The man who saved my soul (and also incidentally my life) with a handshake and a smile that day surely has a name, but I haven’t a clue what it is.

    He never knew mine, either. It’s a safe bet he also didn’t know that I was only walking up to his parish church because I’d gotten caught in a traffic jam on the way to go kill myself. If he was really, really good at reading faces he might have guessed that it had been at least six weeks since another human being had looked me in the eye, but he probably didn’t know that either. The fact that I hadn’t been in a church since I was a very little kid was probably apparent to my pew-mates (I didn’t know any of the words, or the postures, or any of that…not to mention the half dozen bouts of silent but quite visible weeping…) but he wasn’t among them.

    Just another usher, welcoming another stranger to the parish, extending a sincere hand of friendship without any way of knowing how very needed it was.

    I doubt he needs my prayers to get to Heaven…any Heaven he hasn’t already got a VIP ticket for isn’t one I particularly _want_ to go to when I die. But I throw in one for his temporal needs every week during Adoration. Mostly, though, I pray for the opportunity, the means, and the grace to do for others something like what he did for me.

    I don’t know if it’s ever happened. But then, I wouldn’t, would I?

  38. William Colbert

    I try to keep prayers of petition for myself very short. My favorite is “Lord teach me to love, teach me to pray.” I know that He is mindful of my needs and desires and I know that as a loving father He will do and permit what is best for me. However, I love to pray for the specific petitions and intentions of others. So you and your family are in my prayers without me ever having to know or you ever having to ask. Even for ice cream.

  39. Cora22WHITLEY

    Don’t you recognize that it’s correct time to get the credit loans, which would help you.

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