“I’ll pray for you.”
It seems like the right thing to say, doesn’t it? We’ve all been in those situations where a close friend or fellow church member shares about their financial stresses or marital problems. And not knowing what else to say, we politely let them know, “I’ll pray for you.”
But recently I’ve come to realize that merely letting someone know you’ll pray for them is a wasted opportunity. Sure, it’s not the worst thing you could say. But it’s also not the best. It actually rings quite hollow, considering that 21% of Americans who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated still claim to pray on a daily basis.
This begs the question, As disciples of Jesus, is it really a good idea for us to tell someone, “I’ll pray for you”?
To find an answer, we look to the apostle Paul. In just about every one of his letters, he tells those to whom he is writing about how he’s been constantly laboring in prayer for them. There’s not a whiff of glibness here. Paul doesn’t speak in religious platitudes. No, we’re talking full-fledged, detailed descriptions of the apostle’s prayers. In fact, there are times where he launches into a prayer for them in mid-paragraph. Here are just a few examples of what I’m talking about.
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9-11)
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)
“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:9-10)
These passages, among several others, show us how Paul faithfully modeled the practice of encouraging the saints through Gospel-saturated, Christ-exalting prayer. We can do the same.
Next time God gives you an opportunity to minister to an afflicted or discouraged brother or sister, try saying something different. Here are a few suggestions.
“I’m committing to pray for you every day.”
Take a moment and set a reminder on your phone. Or add it to your prayer list. Be sure to let your despondent brother or sister see you do this. It will encourage them to know that you didn’t just walk away and mumble some quick, generic prayer; but rather you’re setting aside focused time to pray intently for their needs on a daily basis.
“I’ve already been praying for you.”
Be sure to pray proactively for those with whom you are doing life. Don’t wait for them to request it. That way, when they do come to you requesting prayer, you can let them know that you’ve already been praying for them. It’s striking how Jesus, knowing that Peter would soon deny him, told him, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Did you see that? “I have prayed…” That’s past tense. Our Lord knew the power of proactive prayer.
“Here’s what I’m praying for you…”
Again, Paul modeled this faithfully. He didn’t just say that he was praying for the churches; he talked about what he was praying for the churches. It’s important to be specific. Letting others know the content of your prayers can be a powerful source of encouragement and edification, granted your praying is being formed by what Scripture teaches about the patterns and priorities of effective prayer.
“Let’s stop and pray right now.”
Perhaps it’s best, whenever possible, to let others actually hear you praying for them. It may be uncomfortable, but it will be immensely fruitful. Let others listen in on your conversations with God. People who are struggling need to hear a praying voice that exudes hope, faith, and genuine concern for their spiritual growth. For this reason, I’m always bolstered in the faith when I hear my brothers and sisters pray on my behalf. It knits my heart together with theirs, and kindles the fires of worship in my heart.