So here’s the deal.
I come from a church, a tradition, and a family, who has historically prayed for everything. And I do mean everything. We pray for snow storms to stop and for cooler weather to come, for illnesses to leave or never arrive, for people we know and people we don’t, for graduations without rain, for a parking spot, for people dying of cancer and people with broken bones and people with colds and bloody noses and weird rashes. We pray to avoid meeting people and in hopes of seeing other people and in hopes of people changing, or God changing us.
And I have heard pastors, and other believers, chastise the prayers they perceive to be trivial. The pastor at my home church has been wary of and made wry comments about believers who pray, for example, for a parking space to open up.
And whenever I think of that, I think of my first job interview.
I had to drive to it on the interstate, which was terrifying as I was not used to interstate driving, and the trek down an eight-lane commuter-choked highway during rush hour had not helped to calm my nerves. I was flustered and a few minutes later than I expected, and when I finally got to the interview site—which had taken an additional ten minutes thanks to road work detours—I looked up to find the parking lot crammed to the brim.
I sat there, car idling in the middle of the lot, and welled up with overwhelmed tears. A lot was riding on the possibility of this job: it would make a difference in the direction of our future, confirm a calling long in doubt, change everything. If I got it. Believing God expected my best, I had put all the work in, and practiced my answers and polished up my resume, and worn my shiniest shoes and nicest Young Woman Professional Outfit. I was prayed up and prepped up. But none of that would matter if I was late to the interview, or if I had to run from a parking lot three blocks away with frizzy hair and sweaty cheeks, or if I got lost trying to find somewhere else to park, or if the general sense of overwhelm threatening me would cause me to burst into tears the minute I met the interviewer.
Please, I thought miserably to God, staring at the lot full of cars. Please please please help.
And then: taillights. The heavens opened as a car in the space ahead of me started, pulled out, and left a glorious empty space just for me. I pulled in, shut my car off, rested my forehead on the steering wheel, and thanked God fervently.
My point here isn’t that there are no frivolous prayers. I believe many believers take prayer for granted, tossing off “hey, can you help me get a raise?” requests to God without ever thinking of who God is, or what God wants from us, or about anything other than ourselves. I think, too, believers can treat prayers like wellness affirmations: phrases we say into the sky, hoping to have them heard, without much conviction or understanding about what we are doing and what our relationship is to the Listener. We can run the risk, if we are not careful, of treating prayer like a shopping list and God like a grocery store.
But I do think it is dangerous to critique the prayers of others. That pastor critiqued “parking-lot prayers” because he perceived them as being an act of laziness, self-indulgence: the whim and wish of a believer who wanted God to spare him the inconvenience of walking seventy extra steps into a building. But for me, a parking lot prayer was a promise and a comfort, a reminder that God was overseeing a significant life transition for me and with me, that He was guiding me through. My parking lot prayer wasn’t about the parking lot.
Context is everything.
When believers are children, we encourage their little prayers: about their friends at school, about losing their dog, about an argument with their best friend. We encourage it because we understand children are entering prayer as an act of relationship and as an act of trust: they believe God cares, and they want to share their life with God, and they know that God wants to hear from him, so they bring him Legos and the birthday party they enjoyed last Saturday and how much their foot hurts from where they stubbed their toe.
Adults can approach prayer in such a way too: as an act of trust, as an act of relationship, believing God cares enough to care about everything. Believing that God knows the parking-space prayer isn’t really a prayer about a parking space so much as it is a prayer about God’s will, and opportunities, and the desire to serve God as well as possible as much as possible in all circumstances.
So let us be discerning when we make judgments about other’s prayers. Sometimes what seems frivolous isn’t: sometimes a “parking-lot prayer” is simply shorthand for something bigger and more significant than we might imagine at the time. We can’t know.
But God certainly does.