Why do we pray for each other?
I mean, I suppose, what is the result? What is the purpose? Of any prayer, really, but of prayer for one another?
It’s so easy to say “I’m praying for you”, or “I’ll pray for you”, or “Praying!”. Those are easy words to blurt out of our mouths, especially when there is a need and we don’t really know what else to do—an illness, a financial crises, a tragedy, a broken soul—when there is nothing we can do to “fix” a person’s need (or, even if there is something we can do), we will often utter one of the above phrases.
I see it on Facebook all the time. All. The. Time. A need is posted out there, and 20-30-40 people comment “Praying!” underneath. Sometimes, these are delicate issues. Sometimes they are heart-wrenching. Sometimes, they border on petty, if we are honest. And sometimes, they are bordering on gossip. But each such post requesting “prayer” elicits heartfelt comment after comment: “Praying!”
And, I’m sure the one who posted the need is encouraged by the responses, as they should be, I suppose. And, I’m sure that many (though certainly not every commenter) do pray. Or, at least, fully intend to.
But, what does it mean to really pray for each other, earnestly? What does it look like? What does it accomplish? Why should we?
I’ve given this some thought, recently. And, today, I’ve given it much thought.
This morning, our pastor finished up James by preaching on, well, James 5, obviously. The last part of James 5. The part that says this:
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore,confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
As always, his words were thought-provoking. He gave tremendous exegesis and clear application. But I was still left wondering, well, how does this work? Particularly that last phrase: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
We are told here (and elsewhere, in scripture), that prayer is for every situation. Definitely suffering—as our pastor pointed out this morning, suffering tends to lend itself well to prayer, as evidenced by our nation’s reaction after 9/11. Sickness, yes, at hospital bedsides, in emergency rooms, as we hear of those around us faced with health challenges. Joyful situations–“Is anyone cheerful?”, though sometimes we (or I) forget to pray as earnestly in thanksgiving for the many joys of grace in my life.
And, here’s an interesting one–confessing sins to one another, and praying for one another, that you may be healed. This one messes me up a bit, but it is here, so it must be truth. And how fascinating it is that verse 16 ends with “…..that you may be healed”—sin is a sickness that we need healed from every bit as much as cancer or diabetes–even more so, actually. That I do know, as truth, in my own life.
But, read through this list again. Sufferings, Joy, Sickness, Sin. These are not nothing. And, when we entrust a fellow Christ-follower with one of these soul-matters, or when we are entrusted with one of these soul-matters as a gift–because it is a gift–from a fellow Christ-follower—a brother or sister, even—we dare not take it lightly.
Take, for example, the scenario “Is anyone among you sick?” We are told to “call for the elders of the church. That requires effort, on both the caller and the ones being called for. It requires active participation….it requires presence. “Let them pray over him…” That, too, requires presence. An earnestness. And then “anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Again, active participation. The symbolic act of “anointing” or “setting apart.” A blessing. (see the passage from Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” below.”
These are not simple things. They require thought. Action. Earnestness. Knowledge of the person, and their situation/needs. Care? Love, even? I’m not sure. Those last two items aren’t mentioned in this James 5 passage, but would you really go through this level of earnest pleading for another person, if it were not tinged somehow with care or love? I don’t know. Just a thought; I may be wrong.
And, I don’t know why it works. I don’t know how the “prayer of a righteous person has great power.” In fact, that phrase intimidates me a bit. I am the farthest thing from a righteous person. So, are my prayers useless? Are they powerless? Does God look at them and then skip over them, because of the mess of sin and selfishness and pride that I am? I don’t know, but even if that is true, I think I am still to pray for the handful of people that I pray for. Intercession is woven all throughout scripture. We are to pray. For each other. But I don’t know how it works.
What I do know, though, is this: Prayer for others should never, ever, be taken lightly. It is always an honor, always a privilege, always a gift, to be asked to pray for someone. To be allowed to pray for someone. To be trusted with that responsibility.
This was kicked home in my own soul, today, after church. While leaving, an older gentleman from my class stopped me. He has a bit of a curmudgeon thing going on. A bit gruff. But he’s not nearly as tough as he portrays. Just ask his cat.
He stopped me, and shared a real need. A real ache. It was brief, but it was there. I told him that I was sorry. I truly am. We went our ways, I got pulled into another conversation, another question. But about 10 minutes later, I saw him again. And this time, I told him that I would pray. Earnestly.
And, he told me that he knew I would. That I wouldn’t just say it.
And, that stopped me. Those words from him reminded me, once again, that it is an honor, a privilege, a gift to be trusted to pray for another person. To be asked to pray for someone. To be entrusted with the responsibility to do so. To be asked, and trusted, to actively and earnestly pray for a brother or sister Christ-follower.
Or, even a non-believer. Because that happens, at times, too. And, that gift, I think, is even more to be cherished.
So, yes, tomorrow morning when I pray, I will pray for the curmudgeon and his soul-need. Earnestly. And I will keep praying, though I don’t understand truly how prayer works, and I am certainly not a righteous person. I will keep praying, because scripture tells me to.
And I will keep praying, because it is a gift to do so.
Then I said, “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” He shrugged . “What would that involve?” “Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing—” There were a few people on the street. “No, no,” he said. “That doesn’t matter.” And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—“ The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream. “Thank you, Reverend,” he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well, anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him . And that was also absolutely true. In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.
Robinson, Marilynne (2004-11-15). Gilead: A Novel (p. 274-276). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.