There may or may not be stupid questions, but there are definitely stupid requests. I have a concept of a “request batting average,” computed as [number of approvals] divided by [number of requests]. You can tell a lot about the quality of an engineer asking for money, or a Christian saying his prayers, by looking at the relevant batting average.
Opportunities to spend money constantly confront a refinery engineer. This valve doesn’t shut very tightly; we could get a new one. We could repair this heat exchanger less frequently if we bought one made of stainless steel. This sixty-year-old pump is not designed to modern standards, and its mean-time-between-repairs suffers for it. That pipe could use a paint job. Maybe we should tear down that pressure vessel that has been sitting there unused for longer than I’ve been alive. This refinery would be easier to manage if we just built a new one made entirely from indestructible nickel-moly-chrome alloys right beside it, and then abandoned the old one. All of these ideas have some degree of aesthetic appeal, would be desirable if free, and would in some sense result in a “better” refinery.
But the plant manager cannot possibly fund every pleasant engineering idea. He operates with a basically fixed budget, so ideas compete for funds. And even if there is slack in the budget, the plant manager also wants the refinery to achieve its broader purposes, notably making net cash so the company can pay the dividend to its owners, the Benevolent Ladies’ Association Retirement Fund (BLARF, for short) and other stockholders.
An engineer could just say “Well, I will just throw out as many nice ideas as I can, and management can pick which ones they want!” Then management has to wade through a flood of half-baked proposals, most of which are not aligned with their priorities. The pattern will quickly become clear, as will a corresponding pattern where the engineer’s requests meet with skepticism. His batting average will be low. And since only 20% of his past ideas got funded, his future ideas are assumed to have only a 20% chance of meriting funding.
Alternately, the engineer can triage ideas himself. He must develop a sense of what management is likely to approve and critically evaluate, in light of this, whether a given idea is worth developing further. Each idea he chooses to develop should become completed staff work, a fully developed concept and justification such that predictable questions are answered and difficulties resolved before presentation to management. This engineer will have a high batting average, and managers will quickly recognize that when he asks for money, they are usually going to say yes.
Now, an engineer should be willing to pursue non-obvious ideas, rather than just parroting management. Sometimes it takes significant development to see whether an idea is good, and it’s often worth doing the work even when you know there’s a 75% chance that you yourself will later kill the idea. And it would be a mistake to target a 100% batting average; it’s hard to be perfectly calibrated on what management will want, and management does want to see options and make choices. But an 80% batting average may be achievable and desirable—so if you have twenty ideas and you expect management can only fund four, give them the top five. Maybe your #5 idea is better than you think, and you’re missing key information that disqualifies your #3. (And in any case, managers need to say “no” occasionally just so everyone can feel like they are doing their jobs, themselves included.)
A good engineer will focus efforts and requests on things management is likely to be interested in. You want this kind of engineer working for you. You want to promote this kind of engineer to management, given that they are demonstrating an ability to do management prioritization and drive towards the organization’s goals.
There are parallels between well-done funding requests and effective prayer. So think about a prayer batting average, [number of approvals] over [number of requests].
You could pray and ask for any number of things. Please bless me with perpetual health and beauty. Please bless me to know if a parenting idea I’ve been thinking through is on the right track. Please bless this double-chocolate brownie to “strengthen and nourish my body,” by some miraculous violation of all known nutritional science. Please guide me with thy Spirit in a situation I’m about to face. Please give me specific needed blessings me as I work to fulfill this worthy goal. Please bless that I can get lots of Lego for Christmas, and also win the lottery. Please bless me with spiritual strength to “submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [me], even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).
God isn’t constrained by a budget; His interest in the pensioners of BLARF goes beyond the fiduciary. But He is still constrained – constrained by His goals. He does not wish to eliminate free will, remove all of life’s challenges, or produce spectacular miracles on demand. He’s been pretty clear about this, too.
Thus I don’t think God is particularly impressed by desire-vomit prayers. You can look in the mirror and pretty well intuit that perpetual beauty is not a part of God’s plan for you (except for you, wife). If lottery wealth was actually going to be good for you in the eternal long run, you’d think God would have created the world to have more of it. And so forth ad nauseam. Asking for this sort of thing results in a low prayer batting average. It could result in frustration with prayer.
The scriptures gently point us away from simply throwing out low-quality requests. Thus in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8 the Lord said “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right…”
Spiritually mature prayers will involve well-considered requests, and the supplicant should have a reasonable expectation that the request will be granted. Getting to know the approver and his plans, and triaging requests accordingly, is a worthwhile effort. Nephi (the son of Helaman) was outstanding at this, to the point that Christ said to him “I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will” (Helaman 10:5). This is like blank-check spending authority—I approve everything you ask for anyways, so you can just go ahead.
Similarly, he told the Twelve that “whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Speaking to a general audience, Christ made a slightly different promise: “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you” (3 Nephi 18:20). So we need to make sure we are asking for that “which is right,” and for things that we believe we “shall receive.”
Like in the engineering case, it is sometimes hard to know beforehand exactly which requests will align with the approver’s goals, so we shouldn’t be excessively cautious about bringing up ideas. God wants to know what we are going through, prayer should have a conversational element, and we should not be too fearful – as Paul teaches “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). And we have Christ’s example of praying “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). This shows both a willingness to be open with God and make a request that may not be approved, and a recognition and acceptance that it likely will not be.
We can and should let our prayers benefit from experience, make sure we are thinking them through, and target a relatively high batting average.
Don’t ask for stupid stuff!