Search Terms, Algorithms, and Prayer Requests

I used to work in a public library. I was the Youth Services Librarian, which meant that most of my time was spent working on building up the collection of children’s books, planning and presenting programming and story times, and going into schools to do book talks and promote library offerings. But I also spent time at the reference desks– both in the Children’s Area and the Adult Services area– and some of my time was spent finding answers to a wide range of questions:

  • Does the library have books or articles about Okapis (for a 4th grade report)?
  • Do you carry tax forms for my out-of-state business?
  • What are the school colors for _______ college (a small community college in Nebraska)?
  • Do you have a picture of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut?
  • What is the title of a children’s book that featured muskrats making chicken soup?
  • My great-aunt left me a set of dishes and I want to know if they’re worth anything.
  • Do you have a recipe for pemmican?
  • What color is yak’s milk?
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Some questions were easy to answer. Some required a little research within the library’s resources. Some were next to impossible and required hours of searching databases, or calling on expert help. Searching a database can be tricky. You need to find solid key words and search terms. For instance, our computer catalog did not recognize the the search term “cooking” or “cookbook.” You had to use the term “cookery” to get the best results. You could also use “cook***” to force the algorithm to look at all words that contained the letters c-o-o-k and any other letters that followed, such as cooks, cookies, cookery, etc. (Many library databases have since been updated, so searches will automatically redirect or refine common terms like this.)

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Databases and search engines are amazing things, but they have limitations. They will only search for what you type in, and they will only search in the way they are programmed to do so. Computers (currently) “think” laterally–they do not make leaps of imagination, nor do they second-guess what you might have meant to ask but didn’t. If I want to know about pemmican, but I misspell it, the search engine may not find what I’m looking for.

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That’s where algorithms come in. If I misspell pemmican by leaving out the second “m”, the algorithm will look for words close to what I typed, based on thousands of other inquiries. It may ask if I meant to search for pelican, instead. Or it may ask if I want pemmican. But if my spelling is really bad, or if the word I type in is actually another word, the search engine may miss my real inquiry altogether, and send me on a fruitless search. If I’m searching for a children’s book with muskrats and chicken soup, and the search engine doesn’t find both terms in a description, the algorithm will usually stick with the first term, and give me a list of children’s books with muskrats. Hopefully one of them also includes chicken soup… If I type the key words in reverse, I will get a list of children’s books with chicken soup…hopefully one of them includes muskrat characters! And algorithms can be skewed by advertisers or other interest groups that pay to have their information appear more often or first whenever certain search terms are entered.

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How does any of this relate to prayer requests?

When people request prayer, they are usually focused on what they perceive as their greatest need. They are searching for an answer; a solution to a specific problem or situation. “Pray for complete healing.” “Pray that my son/daughter will…” “Pray that I get this job.” And it is tempting to pray very specifically. This is not wrong. But sometimes, it limits how we see prayer and how we look at God’s answers. The opposite is also true. Sometimes, we pray so broadly, that we may not see God’s answer for what it is. Sometimes, we pray, hoping to change some sort of algorithm and get to the “top of the list” or get the “right” answer. This is not what prayer is about…we know this, but sometimes, our wants blind us to what we are actually asking (or asking others to ask for).

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So what are some of the key words we can use in our prayer requests and prayers? Jesus gives us a fantastic blueprint in The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13):

“Our Father”–remembering to whom we are praying is vital. We are not praying to a distant, absent-minded, shadowy figure; He is our Father. He knows what is necessary, and what is best.

“Who art in Heaven”–God is Omnipotent. There is nothing we can ask or imagine that is too big, too difficult, or too much to ask. That doesn’t mean that God will give us whatever we want, whenever we want it, but it does mean that God is not limited by the same things that limit us!

“Hallowed by Thy Name.”–God is not our “genie in a bottle.” He doesn’t work for us, or at our command. God is sovereign; He commands the Universe. And even though He makes Himself known and wants a relationship with us, He is not like anyone else–He ALONE is GOD. When His answers seem “wrong,” or don’t make sense, it isn’t because He didn’t hear us, or because He doesn’t love us, but His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”–There are a lot of “good” things that are NOT part of God’s best will for us. There are a lot of difficult and painful things that God can use for our good. He wants to hear the cry of our heart–“I want to be healed.” But He also wants to hear our willingness to accept that healing may not be immediate or easy.

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“Give us this day our daily bread”– It is not “wrong” to pray for things in the future, or to pray for “big” or complex things, but our dependence on Him is shown best when we acknowledge our everyday basic needs are met by Him.

“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”–Don’t be fooled. God will not ignore our hidden resentments, hatred, disdain, rebellion, and unforgiveness. Our requests can be sidelined by holding on to grudges and harboring secret doubts about God’s essential fairness, as well as hanging on to sinful habits.

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God doesn’t need algorithms or special prayer “search terms”. We can come to Him with our requests, and He knows precisely what we want and what we need. But we will learn more about ourselves and about who God truly is when we refine our hearts and our prayer life.

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