However, the majority of prayers in the Bible focus on other things. As shorthand, here are three emphases of biblical prayer: circumstantial prayers, wisdom prayers, and kingdom prayers. Praying for the sick is one form of the first.

1. Sometimes we ask God to change our circumstances—heal the sick, give us daily bread, protect us from suffering and evildoers, make our political leaders just, convert our friends and family, make our work and ministries prosper, provide us with a spouse, quiet this dangerous storm, send us rain, give us a child.
2. Sometimes we ask God to change us—deepen our faith, teach us to love each other, forgive our sins, make us wise where we tend to be foolish, help us know You better, give us understanding of Scripture, teach us how to encourage others.
3. Sometimes we ask God to change everything by revealing Himself more fully on the stage of real life, magnifying the degree to which His glory and rule are obvious—Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, be exalted above the heavens, let Your glory be over all of the earth, let Your glory fill the earth as the waters cover the sea, come Lord Jesus.

In the Lord’s prayer we see examples of all three. They are tightly interwoven when we pray rightly. The Lord’s kingdom (#3) involves the destruction of our sins (#2) and our sufferings (#1). His reign causes a flourishing of love’s perfect wisdom and a wealth of situational blessing. Prayers for God to change my circumstances and to change me are, in their inner logic, requests that He reveal His glory and mercy on the stage of this world.

When any of these three strands of prayer gets detached from the other two, prayer tends to go sour. If you just pray for better circumstances, then God becomes the errand boy (usually somewhat disappointing) who exists to give you your shopping list of desires and pleasures—no sanctifying purposes, no higher glory. Prayer becomes gimme, gimme, gimme. If you only pray for personal change, then it tends to reveal an obsession with moral self improvement, a self-absorbed spirituality detached from engaging with other people and the tasks of life. Where is the longing for Christ’s kingdom to right all wrongs, not just to alleviate my sins so I don’t feel bad about myself? Prayer pursues self-centered, morally-strenuous asceticism, with little evidence of real love, trust, or joy. If we only pray for the sweeping invasion of the kingdom, then prayers tend towards irrelevance and overgeneralization, failing to work out how the actual kingdom rights real wrongs, wipes away real tears, and removes real sins. Such prayers pursue a God who never touches ground until the last day.

Practicing the Three Strands of Prayer

We could give countless examples of these three strands of prayer operating wisely. Let me note a few. Consider the Psalms, the book of talking with God. About 90 psalms are “minor key.” Intercessions regarding sin and suffering predominate—always in light of God revealing His mercies, power, and kingdom. The battle with personal sin and guilt appears in about one third of these intercessions. Often there are requests that God make us wiser: “teach me,” “make me understand,” “revive me.” God reveals Himself (“for your name’s sake”) by changing us. Many more psalms reveal requests to change circumstances: deliver us from evildoers, be our refuge and fortress amid suffering, destroy Your enemies. These, too, are always tied to requests that God arrive with kingdom glory and power. God reveals Himself by making all these bad things and bad people go away. Then there are the 60 or so “major key” psalms. In these you see emphasis on the joy and praise that characterize God’s kingdom reign in action.