In times of crisis, after we think we have done everything humanly possible to cope with desperate situation, we often declare, “All we can do now is pray.” Now to be fair, when we say this we are not saying, “Let’s do nothing.” Praying is doing something. But what are we doing when we pray?
Cups of Cool Water
Consider four areas where we can do something good for others. (1) If someone has a physical need and we have the knowledge and means to help, we can render that help. We can give a cup of cool water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, seek justice for the oppressed, feed the hungry, or help the insolvent with medical bills. (2) For the unskilled and uneducated, we can teach, train, and equip them with knowledge or skills they can use to make a living. (3) We can do something for those experiencing emotional distress or trauma by supporting them with our presence, by listening, and by expressing love and concern. (4) In a person’s relationship to God, we can explain and share our faith.
Before we turn our attention to prayer let’s think about what we are doing when we help people in the above ways. Are these purely secular activities we accomplish by our own independent choice and power? No believer thinks this. We thank God for giving us opportunities, wisdom, and strength to do good for others. And we know our work would not be effective apart from God’s cooperating help.
Hence when contrasting the ordinary ways we help people with (merely) praying for them it is not accurate to say that in the former ways we do not depend on God’s help at all whereas in prayer we depend wholly on God’s help. Clearly we depend on God’s cooperation in both, in acts of physical help and in the act of prayer. But I must ask a further question: when we pray for another person, are we cooperating with God in helping others or are we merely asking God to help the other person independently of us? Let me ask this question in another way. Does praying for someone do something for them in the way giving them a cup of cool water does something for them?
Natural Action in a Natural Medium
We think we understand how giving a cup of cool water helps another person, that is, we have the wisdom and power to direct nature’s forces in a particular direction so as to quench a person’s thirst. However with regard to prayer we see no direct connection to the other person that allows us to touch them by praying—no medium like physical nature in which we both exist and can interact. So, we think of prayer as working solely by evoking God’s favorable response in some way. That is to say, praying is like dialing a 911 hotline to God hoping God will supply the needed aide. Our act of praying affects God directly but it touches the person for whom we are praying only indirectly.
This understanding of prayer is illustrated by our common practice of letting people know we are praying for them. We feel an urge to make direct contact with those for whom we pray, and we cannot imagine a way to do this other than by communicating this information to them in the ordinary way. It helps people emotionally to know that others love them and are petitioning God on their behalf. And there is nothing wrong with this desire. But telling someone you are praying for them is not the same act as helping them through your prayers.
Spiritual Action in a Spiritual Medium
To even the casual reader, prayer emerges as a major New Testament theme. Some prayers appeal directly to God for him to act. But others seem also to exert a kind of influence in the spiritual realm on behalf of others in a way similar to the way the act of giving a cup of cool water works in the natural realm. Paul tells the Ephesians that since our enemies are not “flesh and blood” but “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12), we cannot fight them with physical weapons. We need spiritual weapons to wage a spiritual war (Eph. 6:10-17). We do not just pray for God to defend us, we also fight, using faith, hope, righteousness, and the Word of God to engage the enemy. And at the end of Paul’s description of the Christian’s spiritual armor he urges his friends to pray for him and all God’s people:
“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Eph 6:18-20).
For Paul, prayer is not only a weapon with which we can resist the enemy, it is also a tool with which we can help our brothers and sisters. How does this work? Paul says that we should pray “in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). All who have God’s Spirit are present in the Spirit. And our spirits, which are in the Spirit, are present to all who are also in the Spirit. As we pray “in the Spirit” we touch each other in this spiritual medium as surely as we touch each other in the body through the medium of physical nature. When we pray in the Spirit for each other we stand together in the spiritual battle. We are really present to each other. Praying for each other is doing something for each other as surely as giving cups of cool water to each other is doing something.
Hence when I ask you to pray for me, I am not asking you merely to tell me that you are praying for me. Nor am I merely asking you to ask God to help me. I am asking you also to stand alongside me in the Spirit, to strengthen me, to encourage me, to fight with me, and to be present with me. And with God’s help, your presence will quench my thirsty spirit as much as your gift of cool water will help my thirsty body.
I am curious what you would think of the following description of prayer: “Prayer declares and reifies an individual’s or community’s orientation towards a person, community, or state of affairs.” In other words, the prayer primarily affects the pray-er, rather than God or the prayed-for. It seems to me that much of your remarks would accord with such a definition.
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