by David Sisler

Question: Is God more likely to grant a prayer request because large numbers of people pray the same prayer? If that is the belief, then isn't that another way of saying God caters to popular demand – i.e., doing the people's will rather than His?

That question was raised a few days ago when I read, "People Find Names and Woes Aired On Well-Meaning Prayer Web Sites," an article in The Wall Street Journal by Barbara Carton.

The article begins with a story which has all of the characteristics of an urban legend, and indeed, in the re-telling has been distorted to the point that much of it is unrecognizable as being anywhere near the truth. But the story of David Allen, a missionary for the Preston Road Church of Christ, in Dallas, is true.

While serving in Thailand in 1997, Allen picked up a parasitic infection. For about a year, he couldn't eat much except soda crackers, and his weight dropped to 139 pounds from 172.

"I am in constant pain," he told four colleagues in a lengthy e-mail.

His message, with details of messy symptoms and frank admissions of despair, was meant to be private. But it was forwarded to several Internet sites that solicit prayer on behalf of those in need. Some people posting the messages embellished the facts and added a diagnosis that Mr. Allen would "apparently die within two months" without divine intervention.

"Now healthy, Mr. Allen appreciates the help that was directed his way," Carton writes, "including donations that helped pay medical bills. But he also says he was ‘embarrassed and offended' that his illness was made so public for so long; messages describing it can still be found on many Internet sites."

I visited several Internet sites which feature prayer chains, among them, prayerpartners.org. In many cases, the messages disclosed the identities of the person requesting prayer and the person for whom the prayer was requested. Reading several of them, I wondered if the reason for the prayer was to help the person or to extract some measure of world-wide revenge (names are removed here to protect both the allegedly guilty and the allegedly innocent).

For instance:

"My husband of 20 years is not happy and doesn't really want to stay married. Three years ago he committed adultery, and I thought we were back on the right track. He says he believes there is a woman out there for him. Someone that will adore him. I just ask for prayer to get my marriage back on track once again. This is destroying our family."


"I pray that my husband finds Christ, and his way back to me."

Then I hit a third prayer request and my computer delivered the message: "Done, but with errors on the page." And that, I thought, speaks volumes.

In her WSJ article, Barbara Carton writes, "Some sites used in chains delete obviously sensitive material or keep identities anonymous. But many don't, nor do they verify the accuracy of submissions." The truth of that statement is demonstrated in following request I found on prayerpartners.org and on prayersontheweb.com (I have removed their names – the prayer chains did not).

"Father, I ask you to restore my relationship with S. You have had your hand on our relationship since the beginning. Lord, I ask for your divine healing power and restoration in this relationship. Lord, you are capable of anything and this is easy for you to accomplish. In Jesus name I pray. J."

There was an interesting follow-up on prayerpartners.org: "TAKE THIS OFF THIS SITE. I DID NOT POST IT AND I HAVE ASKED TO HAVE IT TAKEN OFF FOUR TIMES."

There is a button to click to vote for the prayerpartners.org to be chosen as one of the "Top 30 Christian Web Sites." Wait a minute! What is more important – prayer or popularity? And why do names have to be mentioned anyway – isn't it enough to just ask for prayer? How many prayer requests cross the line and become gossip?

When I was a pastor, we routinely took prayer request from the congregation – the church family was praying for the church family. The church where I am now a member routinely takes prayer request from the congregation – the church family is praying for the church family. But Donna Schaper, senior pastor of Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami, describes Internet prayer chains perfectly when she says, "This is prayer-as-talk-show, as opposed to prayer-as-community."

The Rev. Patrick Moran, the 67 year old pastor of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Gary-New Duluth, Minnesota, no longer reads the names of the sick when he prays during the celebration of the Mass. For 40 years he called the names of his flock and asked for God's mercies on them, but not any more. Legal experts predict the privacy issue will change the way prayer is conducted in public worship and on prayer chains and prayer hotlines.

Maybe we should return to what our Teacher said. "But thou, when [whenever, as long as, as soon as] thou prayest, enter into thy closet [a storage chamber, storeroom, a chamber, especially an inner chamber, a secret room], and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly [apparently, manifestly, evidently, in known fashion]" (Matthew 6:6).

"God is more ready to answer than we are to pray," William Barclay writes. "His gifts and his grace have not to be unwillingly extracted from him. We do not come to a God who has to be coaxed, or pestered, or battered into answering our prayers. We come to one whose one wish is to give. When we remember that, it is surely sufficient to go to God with the sigh of desire in our hearts, and on our lips the words, ‘Thy will be done.'"


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