“Can I pray for you?”

by K.W. Leslie, 20 September

When you don’t know what to do, talk to God.

Not only is this always good advice to follow, but it’s good advice when dealing with others. When other people share their difficulties with us, we don’t always know how to respond. Prayer’s one of the best responses—if not the best, period. It’s turning to God as our first resort.

I know; plenty of people think they know just what to do when they hear someone’s troubles. That’s why they immediately offer it: Advice. No, the person sharing their woes didn’t ask for it. Often they just wanted to vent to someone. But that’s not gonna stop people from inflicting bad advice upon ’em anyway.

Remember Job’s friends? For a week he kept his mouth shut, Jb 2.13 but then he made the mistake of lamenting in front of them, Jb 3 and it opened up their floodgates of bad advice, naive statements, sorry platitudes—you know, the same stuff people still offer as advice, which just goes to show they’ve never really read Job. It pissed the LORD off, ’cause nothing they said about him was correct. Jb 42.7 Like I said, shoulda gone to him first.

Me, I try to keep the unsolicited advice to a minimum. If you want it, I’ll offer it, with the usual disclaimer that I’m hardly infallible. But really, the best response is, “Can I pray for you?”

And when we offer to pray for them, let’s not do the similar platitudinous “I’ll pray for you.” Mostly because among Christianists, “I’ll pray for you” means one of two things:

  • “I’m really offended by what you just said. Go to hell. No, wait; I need to sound Christian. ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Yeah, that’s the ticket.”
  • “Oh Lord, I don’t care about all your miserable problems. I’ve got my own stuff to deal with. How do I get out of this dreary conversation? ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Good; now I can leave.”

It’s seldom based on sympathy.

Well, don’t be one of those unsympathetic jerks. If you’re offering to pray for them, no time like the present. Stand right there and pray. Doesn’t need to be a long prayer; doesn’t need to be perfect words. Just needs to be you, telling God to help ’em out.

The fear of rejection.

Many Christians balk at this idea.

There’s the fear—a totally irrational fear, too—the answer’s gonna be “no.” Or worse: “Who do you think you are?” followed by some diatribe about what what an awful idea religion is.

Yeah, you’d think they’d only be this kind of nervous when they’re offering to pray for pagans. But they’re even nervous about praying for fellow Christians. They’re worried suffering has brought their Christian friends to their breaking point; that maybe they’ve already quit Jesus and, like Job’s wife, just wanna curse God and die. Jb 2.9 Hey, it’s been known to happen. Some of us are only willing to follow God when times are good. Introduce real suffering, wake ’em up to the fact God doesn’t grant every wish like a genie, and they’ll start shopping for other religions.

Like I said, it’s an irrational fear. Maybe twice in my life has anyone ever responded with “No thank you.” Wasn’t any kind of screaming, raging, insulted, demoniac rejection. In fact, had I experienced that kind of rejection, demoniac would be the first conclusion I jumped to. Prayer doesn’t throw anyone into a rage unless they expect results—and don’t want those results. You know, like a devil.

Nope; in my experience everyone responds with, “Yes please!” Sometimes surprise, as if prayer has never occurred to them. More often gratitude, or relief. They never even thought of God in their time of need. Finally here’s a solution worth exploring.

Some Christians have turned “Can I pray for you?” into their evangelism tool. (My sister, fr’instance.) They talk to pagans on a regular basis. They hear about problems all the time. And instead of trying to artificially wedge Jesus into their conversations, here’s a way to bring up religion that isn’t artificial at all. Someone’s got a problem? God’s a practical solution. And in this way, they introduce them to the God we believe in.

So if you choose to do likewise, expect their answer to be “Yes please!” or at least “Um… okay.” Be ready to pray.

Praying for them.

I used to advise people, once they got the okay, to follow up with, “Can we pray right now?” I don’t anymore. Just start praying for them. If they expected you to go away and pray for them later, that’s their error. Pray anyway.

Yeah, this sounds a little rude of me. Here’s why it’s not: You’re not going to pray in a way which embarrasses them.

See, that’s what people are really worried about when you start praying for them right away: They’re afraid you’re gonna get all charismatic on ’em. They worry you’ll get loud. You’ll shout. You’ll pray in tongues. You’ll make a scene. You’ll try to perform an act of faith-healing on ’em, right there in the coffeehouse: “Lord Jesus heal this man’s gonorrhea! Heal him, I pray! In the name of the Lord!—and won’t let up till you’re convinced they’re cured. Mainly they’re worried your prayer is gonna suck 20 minutes out of their life, and they don’t want any long prayers.

That’s right. You’re not gonna do this. If you were gonna do this, stop it. Bad Christian.

This is how you pray:

  • QUIETLY. Only they can hear you. Nobody else. You’re not putting on a show.
  • DISCREETLY. Keep your eyes open. Don’t raise your hands. Don’t drop to your knees. No prayer postures: Don’t look like you’re praying. If the person you’re praying for wants to do that stuff, fine; but don’t you initiate any of it.
  • SELF-CONTROLLED. Don’t get emotionally sloppy. Don’t get weepy. You’re there to console them, not vice-versa. They might be emotional, and are counting on you to keep it together.
  • BRIEFLY. Keep it under a minute. You read right: A minute. You can pray everything you need to within a minute. If they told you a 30-minute story, you don’t need to repeat the whole thing to God. Summarize. Or “Lord, you know my friend’s need” is a perfect substitute.
  • DON’T FORGET TO LISTEN. In mid-prayer, if the Holy Spirit tells you to do anything different from what I’m telling you, follow him, not me. Sometimes he does want you to pray louder, or more publicly, or longer. But not typically. Those are exceptions, customized for each person. The Spirit deals with us as individuals, y’know.

If you’re worried about how to keep your prayers brief, do as you do for praying in public: Memorize something. Come up with a little outline you can adjust for all circumstances. “Lord Jesus, you know my friend’s need. We pray you get involved in the solution. Show them which steps to take. Show them solutions they’d never have seen. Create solutions if there aren’t any. Show them you care; you’re here for them. Show them something they’ll never forget. In your name, Amen.” Add details where necessary.

I told you it didn’t need to be long, nor loud. Jesus told us not to pray as a spectator sport, Mt 6.5 Yet I’ve seen fools who stand right in the middle of the walkway, forcing others to walk round them, while they pray at the top of their lungs so everybody can see “the power of prayer.” More like the noisiness of hypocrisy. More pagans than not know Jesus ordered us not to pray like that.

In your prayer, what people are listening for isn’t effective-sounding prayer language. They’re listening for authenticity. They want to hear you mean what you pray. So never pray what you don’t mean. If you honestly don’t know whether God’ll solve their problems, never claim, “God, I know you’ll solve their problems.” All we really know is God can solve them. Usually through us.

You won’t miss your opportunity.

I know; if you’re using “Can I pray for you?” as evangelism, you’re gonna be tempted to slip a sermon into that prayer. Don’t. Pagans are extra-sensitive about hypocrisy, and that’s how they’ll interpret your sermon: “I thought we were talking to God. Why’s this ‘prayer’ sound like a passive-aggressive lecture?”

The prayer isn’t your opportunity to share Jesus. (Actually, your best opportunity comes when God answers the prayer.) If you wanna share Jesus or talk about God’s kingdom, do so before or after the prayer; not during. And if the Holy Spirit answers in mid-prayer, don’t pray it. Simply share the prophecy afterwards: “While I prayed I believe God told me this.” If it’s really from God, again: There’s your best opportunity.

Often you’ll find out the people you’re praying for consider themselves Christian. Which they might be. Then again, they might be lapsed Christians who have no relationship with God: Haven’t been to church in years, haven’t cracked a bible in longer, and only pray when they’re desperate. They may have no clue how to pray. Their traditions about prayer are entirely different. Hopefully they’re not so particular about prayer, they’re jerks about it. (Hopefully we’re not either.) In any event, never assume, “Oh, this is a Christian. I don’t have to be disciplined or careful when I pray.” Yeah you do. We always do.

When you’re done, wish them well. If they have questions about God and want to talk further, jump on that. If not, invite them to church at least. And if they’re not interested, well, you gave it a shot.

Keep taking those shots.