Your co-worker has just shared with you that her son is battling a drug addiction. You press in and provide a listening ear. But as the conversation closes, what do you say? Nothing? That you will pray for her family? Or do you ask if you could pray with her right then?
I’ve done all three, and there are circumstances where all three are wise and godly responses. But usually praying for a friend with a request then and there is the best response. There have been far too many times when I have not prayed with someone who needed prayer or told them I would pray for them later when the most loving thing I should have done for them was to pray with them right there.
Offering to pray for someone in the moment can feel incredibly awkward. Your mind races: do they even believe in God? What god do they believe in? Are they going to be offended if I ask?
Why is it worth the risk to pray for someone in need? And how do you do it?
1) To demonstrate Christianity is so much more than platitudes.
One of the most frequent responses I’ve observed on Facebook from unbelievers when encountering difficult situations with others is their promise to “send good thoughts.” The statement itself concedes that it is nothing more than a platitude. What does it look like to “send good thoughts”? Will the one who promises to send them follow through? What happens when those “good thoughts” are sent? Will they have any impact? On all counts: no, and assuredly not. When we say “I’ll pray for you” for many non-Christians, they hear a promise as empty as “sending good thoughts.” By actually praying with them then and there, you are demonstrating that you are not just offering a sentiment, not just dropping an empty platitude, but you will follow through.
2) To demonstrate you have really heard your friend.
Praying out loud with your friend shows that you have really heard them. As you ask God to intervene in the situation and you echo back specifics they mentioned and reflect to God emotions they may not have even stated, your friend can hear your attention to them.
3) To demonstrate your love for your friend.
When you pray, you show your love for them in two ways: first, you show that you love them because you offer to them your full attention and your empathetic listening. Second, you demonstrate your love to them in risking embarrassment, both to them and to others. Ironically, because it takes a measure of courage to risk praying for someone publicly, that same risk proves your love for them.
4) To demonstrate your belief.
The watching world is always wondering if our belief is true and authentic. What demonstrates that belief more than, in time of need, reaching out to the only one we believe can truly intervene? Peter promises us that through Christ we are a “holy priesthood.” What he means by this is that we are God’s intercessors for the world.[i] It is our duty to cry out to God on behalf of a world that doesn’t know him.
5) To invite them to pray.
To the world prayer is often considered something formal and stilted, disconnected from our everyday speech. “Thees and thous” pepper memorized soliloquies to an unseen, unapproachable, and stoic deity. When we pray normal everyday prayers with real emotion and normal language, we model for them the simplicity and availability of prayer to them.
If you have authentic relationships with unbelievers, then you will have opportunities weekly to pray for them. You may be surprised how well received your offer is. I can’t think of the number of times people have expressed deep gratitude for being prayed for and I can only remember a few occasions where someone refused my offer to pray for them. Lean in and take the risk that you would act as the priest Christ has called you to be, showing Christ’s love to those around you and inviting them into that love.
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[i] Interestingly, this phrase is taken from Exodus 19, where God promises this designation to the Israelites. They were to be God’s priests to the world, a nation that was to demonstrate to the world the power and beauty of the one true God. Unfortunately Israel failed in fulfilling this promise, both because of their own unbelief and adultery and also because of their selfishness in their belief.