[Note: I don't really get all my ideas for this blog from sports radio. It only seems that way over the past couple of days...]
Once again, Bernie Miklasz, the sports radio guy at ESPN1380 in St. Louis, raised an interesting question during my drive time. He and his colleagues were talking about those who were praying for Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby champion race horse who shattered his right hind leg during the Preakness. The two basic positions that they discussed were: 1) God (however defined) cares about all our prayers; hence, praying for a horse is acceptable; 2) God (however defined) only needs to be bothered about the "big stuff"; hence, praying for a horse with whom has no personal relationship is silly.
The conversation then devolved into a conversation about what to pray about and the purposes of prayer (remember this is a sports radio show! I think it is the best in the city). One comment tried to distinguish between prayer for a horse with whom one has no personal relationship and prayer for a family pet, with whom one has a relationship. Another suggested that praying for financial benefits (such as winning your bet on Barbaro at the Preakness) would be acceptable, but praying for the horses' general health is not. Still another claimed that prayer was the expression of our wishes and emotions that impacted us more than anyone or anything else. It was really a fascinating conversation, particularly because the radio guys appeared to be nominally religious at best.
But, as you'd expect for a pastor and seminary professor, it raised all sorts of intriguing questions and possibile responses about why and for whom prayer happens. Above all, the radio talking heads failure to think about God, rather than themselves or the one for whom they prayed, reveals a striking misunderstanding of what prayer is about. And yet, there was enough truth (a remnant of the image of God?) to serve as a connecting point in a conversation.
So why pray? One handy understanding of what prayer is puts it this way: “prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God.” And so, the sprots radio guys were not that far off. To be sure, there are qualifications to this—our prayers are offered in the name of Christ and with the help of the Spirit, confession of sin, and thankful acknowledgement of God’s mercy (LC 178). Likewise, we are not to pray for the dead, for those “of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death,” or for “anything unlawful” (WCF 21:4, LC 184). Still, these are qualifications to the main point, which is decidedly straightforward and non-mystical—prayer is offering up our desires to God.
The upshot to this would be that it would be entirely appropriate to prayer for any suffering creature whom God has made. After all, he knows about every single sparrow and every flower in the field and provides for them. And if our hearts go out to a suffering creature, we can be assured that God's heart goes out to them as well--he doesn't view the suffering of anything he has made dispassionately.
That being said, our hearts should go out more often than they do toward God's human creation--to single mothers contemplated abortions, to families wrecked by the abuse of meth, to children who struggle to read because of dyslexsia, to those who are forced to rebuild their lives after a tornado. Our desires for them should direct our hearts to God, begging God to intervene in their situations and show himself powerfully redemptive on behalf of his creation.
I suspect, though, that the real issue for most of us is not the content of our prayers, but the way in which we pray. And it is how we pray that provides the means of our transformation through the work of God’s grace. We are called upon to pray with a full apprehension that God is our King and with an intense realization that we are sinners who would be totally and completely lost without the initiative of God’s grace. Further, as we pray recognizing whom we are addressing and who we are as we address, our prayers are filled with gratitude to God our King who saved us, with understanding, with whole-hearted belief in and fervent sincerity to him, with love and determined perseverance. Finally, we offer our desires up to God with a humble submission to his will, recognizing that he is the King who governs all his creatures and all their actions in accordance with his perfect will. So, in offering up our weighty desires to God, we offer up ourselves to him as well so that we might know what is good, acceptable and perfect in God’s sight (LC 185; Romans 12:1-2).