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.
For a long while after my conversion, I devoted a lot of time in reading and chats with spiritual directors simply learning how to pray. Specifically: I want a certain thing, should I ask for it? Or should I just throw out a general "Thy will be done" prayer?
What I learned was the importance 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? Or...?
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; 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.