It’s not until recently that I’ve found a compelling result when I pray for others. And in a roundabout way, the practice changes me in beneficial ways.
In the days when I was an active pastor, as opposed to the recovering pastor I am now, one of the expected duties I was given was to pray for those in my congregation. And of course, that would come after praying for my wife and kids. Then there would be the praying for extended family, friends, fellow pastors, partners in ministry, areas of our community … and I haven’t even gotten to enemies by this point.
Frankly, that’s a lot of praying for others. Honestly, I was never really good at it.
Frankly, that’s a lot of praying for others. Honestly, I was never really good at it. And that was due to several reasons.
DO WE EVEN KNOW HOW TO PRAY FOR OTHERS?
I had some theological quandaries about praying for others.
Was I supposed to be praying their circumstances would work out more beneficially? If so, that presents a problem, because I’m not at all sure that the God Jesus calls Father works in the minutiae of individual circumstances. If this God’s nature is love, and that love is an uncontrolling love, then to change and manufacture circumstances means this God is acting in a controlling way. That’s a conundrum I couldn’t rectify.
Was I instead to be praying that something within other people’s characters would change? This is a bit more theologically honest, but still presents some difficulties. In a logical sense, there’s no way that another’s character might change unless I were to have a conversation with them about it, right? In a mystical sense, what does my request have anything to do with whether the Spirit of the Living God would commune with another individual?
But there is this: the activity of prayer does something in us neurologically. I discussed this at length with Science Mike, aka Mike McHargue, on an episode of the Reimagining Podcast from season 1: Reimagining Prayer.
In that conversation we discussed how the connections in the brain tend to reconfigure themselves in progressively more healthy ways over time as a direct result of the practice of prayer. I had spent so many years praying primarily for myself that I wondered if I’d experienced this neurological benefit or not.
So these past few months, I’ve changed up the game.
So these past few months, I’ve changed up the game. I invest almost all my time in prayer “praying for” others.
I put the “praying for” in quotes because the practice I’m working on isn’t about asking some controlling deity to change the circumstances of others for their benefit, nor is it about asking some mystical God to force its Spirit against the will of another.
Instead, I take the time to talk about the good things I see in others. And then to listen to my own attitudes, feelings, biases about that person and question myself about what I might need to change in me.What if we prayed for others by choosing to see the goodness in them? Click To Tweet
HERE’S WHAT I PRAY FOR OTHERS
For my family, I praise all the incredible qualities of my wife and all the beautiful things about my kids. I give thanks to God for the people they are. I reflect on how the good in them far outweighs anything I might deem deficient. And I chastise myself for the times I focus inordinate amounts of attention on their weaknesses, willing to let them know more consistently how much I appreciate who they are.
For my friends, and extended family, I allow myself to experience the gratefulness I hold for people who would actually devote themselves to me with expressions of words, time, and resources that show their love for me. I restrict myself to remembering their friendship. And then I search myself diligently to find out how I can be a better friend or extended family member to them. And when I realize something I could do to bolster our friendship, something I could do to show my love for them more tangibly, I resolve to do it.
COMMUNITY AND THE WORLD
For parts of my community and areas of the world other than my own, I imagine myself in the shoes of others who face things that I don’t have to face. I try to feel what such experiences might be like. I imagine what the real world effects might be. And then I weep for those places I don’t live. I also ask God for the grace to see any remnants of those effects in my circles, and to do what I can to work against the negative.
GROUPS OF PEOPLE
For specific groups of people, I first express gratitude for the diversity of humanity. Instead of wondering why some groups of people are the way they are, I seek to find something lovable in them. It may not be there, or it may take me a lifetime to see it. But I try. Because here’s the thing: if the God Jesus called Father has a nature that is only and always love, then the God I follow finds a way to love everyone. I’d like to someday do the same. I then examine my own prejudices and try to eradicate them so that I can see others as they are, and not as I assume they are.
For my enemies, I don’t spend anytime at all asking God to change them. I don’t spend anytime at all breathing curses at them (most of the time). I allow myself to feel the anger or even hate that I may hold for those who are opposed to me, or who have hurt me, or who have done wrong to me. And then I ask for a paradoxical miracle. I ask for God to change that hate into love, however long it takes. Additionally, I think of the things in my enemies that I would judge or criticize, and then I focus on myself and see just where those same qualities are hiding out in me. And I endeavor to change myself.
So you see, praying for others in this way has a profound influence on my capacity to change and grow.
But it also has another, more powerful possibility. Spending time in conversation with God about others in these ways creates something new in me. I’m finding there is a small but growing capacity to see all these people I pray for as better than myself, as more worthy of time and attention, as incredible human beings who, though deficient in some ways, are nowhere near as deficient as me.
This practice of prayer breeds humility in me. And that makes it worth it.