“For Whom to Pray?”
February 8, 2015 - Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Once again there is a
short answer to this week’s question about prayer. For whom should you pray?
Everyone. But there’s a bit more to say. Our text doesn’t quite ask us to pray
for all people, just “all the saints,” as it says in verse 18. As you may know
and we will note in a bit, that does not end the prayer list. Jesus asked us to
pray for our enemies. James tells us to pray for the sick. In I Timothy 2 Paul actually does tell us to pray for everyone and then goes on to
specifically direct us to pray for kings and all people in high positions of
However you parse it,
the Bible’s call to prayer is a tall order. Pray all the time, as Paul says
again here in verse 18 of our text, and pray for everyone. We talked about the
first part of that last time, how to pray all the time. So let’s talk about how
you and I can tackle the daunting task of praying for everyone.
It’s going to take
some discipline, maybe even some training and practice. As I said on my blog
this past week, I really dislike some of the Christianeze we evangelicals
sprinkle into our conversation, and “prayer warrior” is one of those terms that
bugs me. The peaceful, quiet occupation of prayer doesn’t fit with my concept
of a warrior, particularly a modern version of a warrior equipped with Kevlar
body armor, an M16 rifle, and a belt full of grenades.
Paul doesn’t care
about my non-violent sensibilities. He is quite happy to connect what he had
just said before our text about wearing the “armor of God” with this direction
to be in constant prayer for all the saints. Almost all our modern English
versions fail us here because unlike the King James and English Standard
versions they make verse 18 start a complete new sentence. But the verbs there
are participles, meaning we should tie verse 18 back to verse 17, maybe even
back to verse 14. While we wear all that armor, particularly the helmet of
salvation and the sword of the Spirit, we are to be constantly praying and constantly staying alert in regard to all the needs of all God’s
people, the saints.
Part of the battle discipline
of a Christian is praying. No matter how much it might trouble us, Paul does
use military imagery for our spiritual life in Jesus. We just need to remember
what he said back up in verse 12 as he begins to talk about our “armor,” that
“our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” but against the
spiritual forces of darkness and evil that make war on us in opposition to God.
It’s a call to combat, but not a call to physical force.
In verse 19, Paul
applies that call to spiritual arms to himself as he asks his readers to
include him in their prayers for all the saints. He wants to be courageous in
the battle, to be bold in proclaiming the Gospel. So he asks specific prayer
for his own part in the fight.
Of course, just like
we cannot literally fulfill the command to pray without stopping, we cannot
literally pray for everyone or even for all Christians, except in a general way
like we always do in the Lord’s Prayer when we say “we” and “our” and realize
that we are praying with and for all the people of God when we ask for daily
bread and forgiveness and deliverance from evil. But even attempting to
specifically name and pray for everyone or even every Christian, would be a
crazy and impossible endeavor, even more than it was in Paul’s day when there
were probably no more than a few thousand Christians in the world.
Some people, like my
atheist professor friend, think that sort of thing makes Christian morality and
practice inherently absurd. It’s impossible for a finite, limited human being
to fulfill the Bible’s commands to love everyone, pray for everyone, do good to
everyone like God asks us to do. But that’s to put an absurd interpretation on
a verse or two of Scripture lifted out of context. What those commands are
really asking of us is to grow into a way of life that is ready, like an
equipped soldier is ready for battle, to love or pray for or help anyone and everyone
whom God puts in our life or even in our mind.
We make ourselves
ready to pray for anyone and everyone by developing a regular and frequent
habit of praying for others. Just like Karl Barth worried that we should not
come up with some way of understanding the command to “pray without ceasing”
which actually results in not praying much at all, we should not let the
impossibility of praying for everyone keep us from praying much for anyone.
In fact, I would go so
far as to say that if our prayers do not often include others, if we’re usually
only praying for our ourselves, for our own needs, then we are not really
praying as our Lord taught us, as Paul teaches us here. To pray is to ask
something of God. But if I am not regularly asking on behalf of someone else as
well as for myself, then it is half-formed, incomplete prayer.
As I said, it’s a
matter of habit. We learn to pray for others and to be ready to pray for anyone
by forming the habit of praying for others every day. You can do that in different
ways, by writing a prayer list and adding to it as more needs come to mind,
maybe checking some off as you hear that prayers have been answered. I’ve got
pretty worn piece of paper like that stuck in the prayer book I use each
You can also discipline
yourself to pause and pray for others whenever you learn of a need. I’m not so
good at that. Like most people I just watched in horror and fascination when I
saw that footage of a Taiwanese plane cutting across a freeway in Taipei before it crashed in the river. It was only later that I thought to pray for the
surviving passengers and families of those who died.
Notice that in verse
18, Paul says that praying at all times is to be “in the Spirit” and that we
are to “keep alert” as we persevere in prayer for all the saints. That means
being ready and open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting about when and for whom to
pray. It means being alert to opportunities to pray that might otherwise pass
unnoticed. I’m trying to work on a better habit of spontaneous prayer so that I
am alert enough that asking God to help is the first thought in my mind when I
learn of needs or disasters.
That military imagery
helps us again here. Soldiers don’t just put on armor and pick up weapons. They
practice with them so that in battle they don’t have to stop and think but just
respond out of ingrained habit. The Army has a soldier practice over and over
until he or she can field strip and clear that M16 in less than two minutes, so
that in the heat of battle a jammed weapon won’t be a deadly disaster.
Likewise, Christians are encouraged by Scriptures like this to practice our
prayer over and over until it’s second nature.
Now let’s go back to
what I said at the beginning and look at the full range of what it means to
pray for everyone. Our text gives us the primary focus, as does Galatians 6:10, which says, “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of
all, and especially for those of the household of faith.” Christians may need
to bring that command to work for the good of all a little more into our
politics, but right now I’ll just note that it asks us to especially be
concerned for other believers, for sisters and brothers in Christ. And surely
praying for them is the place to start working for their good.
This is why we pray
for two different churches each week in our prayers during worship, why we pray
for those celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, why we pray for different
missionaries each month, why we keep repeating that list of people who have been
ill for a long time. It’s not just to make those churches or people feel
appreciated and loved, though it can do that. It’s to move us into a regular
habit of praying for the household of faith, for all the saints as Paul asks.
But just as Paul asks specific prayer for himself, specific prayer for specific
people strengthens and builds that habit in us.
And of course, it’s
not just the shear numbers which make praying for everyone difficult. There are
people, maybe many people, who are not the sort of folks we naturally think of
praying for. That’s why Jesus Himself told us specifically in Matthew 5:44 to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In Romans 12:14 Paul told us the same thing, to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do
not curse them.”
That will take some
practice. How do we move from the natural reaction of responding to those who
hurt us with fear and anger to the Christian response of praying for such
people? Well, that soldier does not first learn to field strip her weapon on
the battlefield. She’s walked through the process in a classroom at boot camp,
learning the crucial movements in a safe and less stressful way. Likewise, you
and I can’t learn to pray for other people in the moments when they do us wrong
unless we’ve practiced praying for them in quiet, less stressful moments when
they are no threat at all. Maybe we need to try and add an enemy or two to the
prayer list on the back of our bulletin.
Some churches also
practice every week what I mentioned at the beginning, Paul’s direction to
Timothy, after telling him to pray for everyone, to also pray specifically for
kings and for people in high positions. They pray for the president, for the
governor, maybe for the mayor or other leaders and officials. And they pray for
them by what used to be called their “Christian” names, their first names, “our
president Barak,” “our governor John.” It’s a way of practicing prayer for
everyone that specifically remembers those in power as men and women like us,
needing God’s help as much and more than anyone.
One more specific
group of people for whom to pray appears in our Gospel lesson. Right at the
beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum we find people bringing sick people
to Jesus to be healed. And James 5:14 tells anyone who is sick to call for a
gathering of church leaders to pray for them. Just like Peter and Andrew told
Jesus about Peter’s mother-in-law so that He could heal her, just like that
crowd brought the sick and spiritually oppressed to that same house to be healed,
you and I are asked to pray and bring the sick and suffering to Jesus.
Praying for those who
are sick may be our best and easiest practice of the discipline of praying for
everyone. It springs pretty naturally to mind to pray when we hear someone has cancer
or is going to have surgery. Most of us can see ourselves in that position
someday if it hasn’t happened already, and we would want someone to bring us to
Still, we need to
practice even this easy and natural prayer for those who are sick. We may think
it’s more our job to comfort those who are not well or help them find medical
care or advocate for them in an unjust system. Those are all good things, but
let us remember that our first and primary responsibility toward the sick as
Christians is to do what we see there in the Gospel, to bring them to Jesus.
I can’t remember where
in all the Stanley Hauerwas books I’ve read that he talks about his own
experience of illness in the hospital. He tells how some poor, unsuspecting
hospital chaplain walked into his room after his surgery and said brightly,
“Well, how are we feeling today?” Hauerwas responded with something like, “I
don’t how you are feeling, but I’m feeling like [blank], and if you aren’t here
to pray for me right this minute, then get the [blank] out of my room!”
Let’s not forget our
primary duty and call to pray for those who are suffering. Bright chitchat and
comforting words and even real help like medicine or a meal or financial aid
can all be good things at the right time. But if we haven’t prayed for people,
if we haven’t first brought them to Jesus and asked Him to help them, then all
our other efforts are so much fluff and we ought to get the [blank] out of the
The fact that we are
called to pray for everyone is what makes supposedly scientific studies on
prayer so laughable. Long ago as he wrote about whether prayer is efficacious,
whether it works, C. S. Lewis said that no real prayer could take place under
the controlled conditions needed for a good statistical study. Lewis worried
about the motive behind such “scientific” prayer. I would simply note that we
are supposed to pray for everyone. How could there be a control group? How
could any Christian pray for some patients in a hospital and not for others?
What is not silly at
all is our responsibility to pray… for everyone. No, we cannot do that
literally and completely, not in this life. But we can work at forming habits
that make us ready and able to pray for anyone whom God puts before us. We can
start to write down names and say them to God every day. We can pray for the
Holy Spirit to make us more open to His own prompts to pray spontaneously when
we see a disaster or learn of a need. We change our criticism of politicians
and leaders and employers into prayer for their well-being and spiritual life.
And we can practice and practice and practice the habit of prayer until it
comes naturally, whether we are walking into a hospital room or driving down
the road or even out on some literal or spiritual battlefield.
As part of Paul’s
prayer request for himself in verse 20 he calls himself “an ambassador in
chains” for Jesus. He was referring to his own imprisonment for preaching the
Gospel. We too are ambassadors for Jesus, not least through our prayers. Ambassadors
represent a government. When you and I pray for others, we represent the
government of our heavenly King Jesus over this world and all the people who
live in it. We stand forth as messengers and representatives of a gracious and
loving King who wants to save and help everyone. So we pray for everyone we
request, repeated twice, was to be able to speak for Jesus boldly, with
boldness. If you turn over to the very end of the book of Acts, you will see
that Paul’s prayer request was answered. The prayer of the Ephesians for him
was effective. We read that Paul was in prison in Rome for two years,
“proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with
all boldness and without hindrance.”
That’s what happens
when we pray for everyone, when we pray carefully and specifically and
faithfully for everyone whom God puts in front of us. The prayers get answered.
The Gospel gets preached. The sick get healed. The lost get saved. People get
brought to Jesus. And the kingdom of God appears. Let us pray as Jesus taught
us, for His kingdom to come on this earth… for everyone.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj