Don’t Ask Me to Pray

Almost 20 years ago, I published this column in Faith Today (September 2001). A reader recently wrote to the FT editors asking for its location online since he remembered it and wanted to send it around to some others. Since I don’t often get asked for citations of 20-year-old writings, I thought I’d celebrate by putting it up here, too.

Corporate prayer itself seems to be a good thing. “Two or three gathered together” in the name of Christ seems to entail Christ’s own presence with them, and that seems a good thing indeed.

What I don’t see in the Bible, however, is anything like the following: “And if you get two or three more, then I’ll be twice as among you as I would have been with half that number. Send out word to a bunch of other Christians and get them to pray, and that will not only increase my presence among you in a mathematically proportionate way; it will increase the odds [ahem] that your prayer will be answered the way you want it to be.

“Indeed, the very best technique [I use this term advisedly] is to send out a chain letter to maximize the number of people taking time from the things they normally would be praying for to pray for you and your concern.”

I’m afraid that the typical evangelical folkway of trying to get lots of people to pray for something smacks of magic to me. I don’t see the slightest hint in Scripture that “the more, the merrier” is a prayer principle.

Indeed, when people are asked to pray in the New Testament, it is clear that they have a personal stake in whatever they are being asked to pray for. Perhaps only one person is to pray; perhaps whole congregations; perhaps the entire Church universal. But invariably they are connected in some important way to the matter at hand.

Thus, let me also ruthlessly criticize a related evangelical folkway. I don’t see anything in the Bible to encourage the following sort of request that I get from time to time in my e-mail: “URGENT! Please pray for my wife’s uncle’s roommate’s cousin’s boss’s daughter’s boyfriend’s dentist:

“He’s having a really hard time just now and we should all pray for him. Send this to everyone you know!!!!!”

Sorry, but I can think of a hundred, nay, a thousand, people whose lives intersect with mine more meaningfully than this fellow’s. They (to extend the Good Samaritan idea a bit) are the neighbours for whom I should be praying.

I don’t mean my prayers should extend no further than my actual acquaintances. I pray for the child we support through World Vision and for the entire country of Sudan. And if perchance God inclines me to pray for this sad dentist I read about on the Net, then I will. But I won’t do so on the basis of some ill logic that he is better off if one more person—any person anywhere—prays for him.

Fundamentally this is about theology. What kind of God is implied in these two evangelical folkways? Not one that makes sense to me on the basis of Scripture or the Church’s tradition—or even just sanctified common sense.

So I don’t like it (I’m going for broke here) when a small-group meeting or a church service is directed to pray for someone whose relationship to the group is tangential, but who happens to have a personal connection with whoever is holding the floor. In my more impatient moments (I have very few, to be sure) I feel like saying, “Well, if you think that’s bad, here are three more cases even more needful of prayer! I mean, how come your friend gets everyone’s prayer and not mine?” The Holy Spirit, however, has yet to signal to me that He¹d like me to get up and say that, so I haven’t. Yet.

Let us “pray without ceasing.” But we must not let someone else’s misguided enthusiasm or all-consuming worry divert us from what the Holy Spirit has brought before us in prayer.

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