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Are You Talking To Me?

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After church the other day, one of the mums was telling me how her son had been desperate to come to church a few weeks earlier, because it was the day before his entrance exam to the local Boys’ School, and he wanted the church to pray for him. His Sunday School teacher quickly reminded him that he doesn’t have to be in church to pray, and the preacher’s prayers don’t have any more power or significance than his own. While this is true, and worth remembering, it got me thinking about the place of praying for one another, audibly, in each other’s presence.

Go into your room, close the door…
In Matthew 6, Jesus recommends private, rather than public prayer, yet this is clearly not a hard-and-fast commandment, since he himself employed the public prayer on at least one occasion:

Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me. (John 11: 41-42)

Later James instructs his readers:

Is anyone among you ill? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)

So when should you pray ‘in secret’, and when in public? It seems that part of the answer is to do with motivation – the Matthew 6 instruction was to contrast true prayer with that of ‘the hypocrites’ who

love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. (Matt 6:5)

The issue is not so much whether others can hear you, but why you want them to hear you. The hypocrites wanted to receive praise from men because of their holiness, Jesus wanted to demonstrate God’s power to others in order to build them up (and also to demonstrate that he was who he said he was).

Elsewhere, Jesus told his listeners that “if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19) It’s hard to agree if you are unaware of what the other is asking!

So there are clearly occasions on which it is acceptable to use prayer to speak to the people around you as much as to God. What are some good uses of this technique, and what are some of the pitfalls to be avoided?

For encouragement
There is something encouraging about being prayed for, audibly and corporately. These prayers might be to God, but they are often for the benefit of the recipient (i.e. he/she receives a benefit simply by hearing the prayer, even before God has answered), not to mention any other listeners.

- If you’re feeling alone, unloved and confused or misunderstood, a loving, sensitive prayer in season can begin the healing process, and open your heart to receive God’s love and full restoration.
- If your faith is weak, or you don’t know how to pray, the prayers of others can both bring about the answer you sought and increase your faith to ask for similar things in future.
- Even if you have full confidence in what you’re praying for (and Who you’re praying to), the agreement of others is both effective (see above) and encouraging. We are meant to be a family, after all, praying together enables us to share more fully in the joy of the answers we receive to the prayers of our hearts.

Great expectations
Praying audibly helps us to be specific, and it can often be a useful exercise in setting out our expectations of what the result of the prayer might be (thought obviously God often surprises us, and we shouldn’t limit him…). It can help the prayee (!) see the kind of answer he or she might expect to receive – if Paul had simply said ‘I’m praying for you’ in his letter to the Ephesians, they may not have been on the look-out for the kind of results God was bringing about in their lives:

Ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:17-23)

I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19).

Credit where it’s due
Related to the last point, it glorifies God when the answer comes. The Ephesians may not have noticed themselves becoming more loving, knowing the hope to which they were called or being strengthened with power. Worse, they might have attributed their growth in those areas to their own increasing maturity, and given themselves a corporate pat on the back.

Praying out loud together gives us the opportunity, when the answer arrives, to say ‘Hey, look, that’s exactly what we asked God for!’ and give glory to him, rather than being tempted to think things just sort of worked out by themselves.

There are times, of course, when you can’t pray in person, or even over the phone. The advent of email means you can pray then and there for someone and know they will (most likely) receive it within minutes rather than the days (or months) letters used to take. It’s something I find a little odd, to receive an email addressed to God (and really much of this post is a result of me trying to work out why, and talking myself round!), but it is more effective than simply saying ‘I’m praying for you’, for all the reasons listed above. It can come across as impersonal if you’re not careful, and of course, as with all written communication, we need to be extra careful with our word choice and tone, but at least it means you have actually prayed, and not just filed the impulse away with all your other good intentions.

Beware man-traps
I think a lot of my hesitation around/scepticism towards corporate prayer springs from too many bad experiences growing up of some of the negative uses of the form. Thankfully, I haven’t come across these so much of late, but some things to watch yourself for include:

- The Preach-prayer. Often employed at the end of a Bible Study or (worse) church business meeting, this is used when you don’t think you’ve got your points across clearly enough, or when others haven’t come round to your point of view. The wording can be long and winding, but essentially the prayer is ‘Dear Lord, help us to see that my ideas are right. Amen’. Don’t do it. Prayer is not about getting the last word.
- The ‘things I wish I was brave enough to say to you in person’ prayer. Related to the above, this prayer is usually one-on-one and is deployed when someone has come to you with a problem they want prayer for. Say ‘Mary’ is worried about how her kids are behaving now they’re off at Uni. Instead of praying for their protection, for good friends, good influences and for God to guard their hearts and minds, you pray that Mary will stop being so controlling and let go, allowing them to make their own mistakes rather than babying them as she always has done. The latter may be true and may need to be said, but saying it first in a prayer is not loving – it’s critical and judgemental. Don’t do it.
- Ticking it off a list. A prayer in public is not worth two in the closet. If someone asks for prayer, 3 minutes spent praying where they can hear you should still be backed up by the same persistence you would show if you hadn’t had that public opportunity.
- Thinking your own, private prayers have less power. And we’re back where we started – being prayed for by others is wonderful and there are lots of good reasons for it, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘I’ll have to wait till Sunday to get someone to pray about that for me’ – God listens to you, too, in the secret places, and he is just as likely to answer your prayer as he is anybody else’s. Keep praying.

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