There are few hymns more popular than “Amazing Grace.” But John Newton was not a one-hit wonder. I love this stanza from another one of his hymns:
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
none can ever ask too much.
It’s almost as if Newton is laying down a challenge for us: “Go big! Get specific! God can handle it!” That’s something that should light a fire under us.
I remember when I was in seminary. My wife was teaching in the inner-city. We didn’t have much. It seemed like we were eating Ramen noodles for two out of our three meals each day. We prayed, “God, you’ve brought us to this city. You’ve given us these jobs. If we’re going to make this work, we need a car. Preferably, a free one!” And you know what, he gave us one.
But it is risky to be that straight-forward with God. Even now, it is easy for me to offer up vague or general prayers. “God, give me energy. Help me focus. Keep my family healthy.” It is really hard for us to say, “God, this is really what I want.” We don’t often pray like that because if he doesn’t deliver, we’re not sure we can really trust him. We’re not sure we can really follow him into hard places.
We all like to hear about God doing extraordinary things in the lives of other people, but we’re uneasy about putting him on the hook to do the same for us.
Risky prayer forces us to wrestle with a tension. On the one hand, specifically and persistently requesting things from God honors him. It’s an evidence that we’re actually engaging God in relationship. And yet on the other hand, God is sovereign—meaning he knows what we need before we even ask him. He knows what we need to follow him. And he will often meet those needs (and some of those wants) in ways that don’t make sense in the short-term. Most tensions, this one included, are not meant to be solved. They are meant to be held. When we try to shut out one side, we miss out on the full picture of God’s nature and character.