I first heard the phrase in the 1970s when I was investigating the Christian religious system. I am now 56, and it makes no more sense to me today than it did when I was 14.
The scenario will run something like this: Someone in a leadership capacity will ask if there are any requests for prayer, meaning “group” prayer. As members of the group are sharing praises or concerns that they would like the others in the room to share in, or to pray over, someone will offer a response along the lines of, “I have an unspoken prayer request.” There is an oxymoron if I ever saw or heard one – “unspoken request.”
In some cases, the unspoken request practice is so deeply encultured that requesters can use a verbal shorthand and say, “I have ‘an unspoken,'” or even shorter hand – a single word – “unspoken.” With the younger crowd, this typically unchains a volley of “me-too” requests that are likewise unspoken. So we end up with five fully-vocalized requests for prayer regarding specific, articulated needs, and thirteen “unspokens.”
The idea behind “the unspoken” is that person X has something they want to ask of God, and they want me to ask it as well on their behalf, but in some sense, they want the request to remain just between them and God, but they really don’t want that because they want me to pray with them and/or on behalf of them, but I can’t know what it is I am supposed to be praying about. At this point, I do not know who the request is for, what it is about, or what the expected outcome is. I really know nothing at all, yet I am being asked to petition God for some sort of intervention. It is an absurdity! I cannot “pray in faith” about an issue of which I know nothing.
The unspoken aspect of a prayer request says, “I do not trust you with my issue, but I want you to indulge me by praying for it anyway.” It is not possible for me to intercede on your behalf, to petition the heavenly Father regarding your need when I do not have any idea what I am wrestling over in prayer. I am resigned to “God, I really like Tom. He’s got a problem. Help him.” There you go. Done.
I understand that there may be valid reasons for not sharing specifics with the body of Christ as a whole. Sometimes it involves pain, fear, embarrassment. If you are not comfortable sharing whatever is the content of the unspoken request with the group as a whole, then the setting in which you are making the request for that specific issue is not the proper setting for the request. When the request cannot be spoken in this context, it is best to hold it for a context in which it can be spoken. Better to pull aside a trusted brother or sister in Christ, and take the request to God in a private room, or a quiet corner in the room we currently occupy.
Furthermore, if the environment in which the unspoken is spoken really is that unsafe, it says something rather unflattering about the lack of unconditional love and the judgmental posture of that body of believers. It may be time to find a new group with which to identify, one that can nurture and encourage your faith; one you trust with no fear.
If your unspoken issue is about unconfessed sin, know that it is all going to come out at some future point anyway. It is better to just put your rock on the table now.
“Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” – Luke 12:3, NASB
Refusing transparency and vulnerability places walls between fellow believers. It makes true friendship, trust, and brotherhood nearly impossible. Prayer, at its core, is a vulnerable practice. Consider the extreme vulnerability of James 5:16.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” – James 5:16, NASB
But if I confess real sin, I’ll be judged.
Maybe. But if so, that is an indictment of the people around you more than it is an indictment of you. Again, you may need to find a different gathering of Christ-followers with which to identify. In a healthy body of believers, what is more likely to happen is that people will nod their heads in agreement, thinking, Yep. I’ve been down that road, and even worse roads than that. Then, not only can they support you in prayer, but they can also offer practical guidance to help get you off the bad road and onto a good one.
I cannot bear your burden when I do not know what that burden is.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2, ESV
It is not possible for me to ease your burden when I am completely in the dark regarding what is troubling you. By refusing to reveal the subject matter of the request for prayer, you are essentially refusing to offload any of the burden. You have kept the entire load on your own shoulders rather than surrendering it to God.
Sometimes a request for prayer reveals a need that can be met by God through someone in the group before which you lay the request. Let’s say your washing machine is broken, you cannot afford to fix it, and now you’re laundering your children’s clothing in the bathtub. The ability to resolve that situation may exist right there in your church family. If not, there may be finances available for you to hire the repair. But none of this is possible because you are unwilling to reveal the true nature of the issue.
If a request for prayer is “unspoken,” then it follows that neither can the answer to that prayer be revealed. Let’s hypothesize that you are wanting prayers from the believing community because you are battling a heroin addiction. You’re embarrassed by and ashamed of the addiction, so you offer up “an unspoken.” Let’s further hypothesize that God mercifully grants you freedom from the addiction. No one will ever know, and no one can rejoice with you.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15, ESV
The believing community has now been robbed of a very powerful testimony – victory over a cruel addiction.
Sometimes a request for prayer lacks detail because revealing the truth of my situation opens me up to accountability. If you know of my heroin addiction, not only will you pour yourself out in prayer, agonizing on my behalf, but you will also hold me accountable to myself and to God – to deny the demands of my flesh, to break the pattern of addiction.
Or, let’s say I am in a really bad place emotionally.
Suppose I have just had a blow-out argument with my neighbor, I am exceedingly angry and want God to rain down fire on his house, burning it to the ground. I may have even prayed for that in the car on the way to the meeting. And when I make this prayer need/request known to the group, not only are they going to refuse to join me in that prayer, they are going to talk to me about anger control, and may pray that prayer instead.
But – what if I offer that up as “an unspoken?” Now, what is the group going to do? Well, God is not going to burn down my neighbor’s house, so we are good to go there, but what about the accountability? The group cannot help me with my anger management, because I unspoke my issue! The group cannot minister to me. They cannot help me. I have robbed them of that opportunity.
It is true that God hears what we have no words for, and that he knows needs in our lives when we may yet be unaware of them. It is true that Holy Spirit intervenes on our behalf with “groanings that cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26) None of that, however, is identified with the group experience of corporate prayer. When I ask for prayer from the body, I am asking for the community to agree with me on the specifics of my request.
“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” – Matthew 18:18-19, ESV
The reality is, there should be no need for the unspoken request among Christ-followers. The body of Christ must be the safest place on earth to share the most painful truths, knowing we will be instantly surrounded by the supporting love of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is the one place we can be real, and truly unburden ourselves.
Victoriously in Christ!