Civil unrest erupts in a nation: Pray for that nation!
A group of people are being smuggled, exploited, or otherwise oppressed: Pray for that group!
Something bad has happened to a plane or ship: Pray for that vessel!
A disease, earthquake, or another disaster strikes a country: Pray for that country!
On social media today, a rather common response to bad news is to #prayfor[them]. I have observed this growing trend in East Asian christian circles for years, though disasters and terrorism in the past year seemed to have made this trend public. Whereas offering prayer used to be something that was only associated with religious christians, now nobody feels shy to use such a phrase. Perhaps people have realized they couldn’t do anything in the face of bad news, and tried to express concern and empathy by offering prayer. Then the thought that so many people would pray too seemed to unify all those who pray, in spite of or maybe because of its sheer vagueness:
- It doesn’t specify who you’re praying to: God, gods, spiritual beings, or some obscure force.
- It doesn’t specify what you’re praying for: material needs, spiritual needs, or (in a conflict situation) which side’s success you’re praying for.
Perhaps for many people, the specifics don’t matter, as long as we’re praying we show solidarity. It’s easy to see how it has become a most politically correct phrase to say, because Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, etc. all pray. Even agnostics pray, to someone out there.
At this point some of us might note, this is as though each one is crying out to his god (Jonah 1:4) – but why exactly is it possible for people from different faith backgrounds to want to pray?
I think, there is something here that we can learn about human nature. Humans innately possess the desire and ability to pray to a divine being, though we’re not always conscious of it. I have even heard an atheist friend lament in his anxiety that he has no god to pray to. That it is normal for people to pray should come as no surprise, since according to the Bible God created humans with a purpose, to worship him. Of course, the Bible also tells us that because of sin, people would rather worship anything else other than the true God; thus we understand why there are so many religions and belief systems.
Does God hear every prayer?
Now if Christians believe that the triune God is the only true recipient of prayer, what should we believe happens to everyone else’s prayers? Throughout the Old Testament, we read stories of how people who appeal to other gods never got their prayers answered. In fact, their inefficacy was frequently highlighted. This is in contrast to the prayers of Elijah, or Daniel; God heard and answered.
Put it this way, prayers directed to other gods are like emails sent to non-existent addresses.
What about prayers directed to God by non-christians? It is worthwhile asking first, what concept of God would a non-christian have? Is he praying to a god formed from human ideas and imagination, or the God who revealed himself in the Old and New Testaments? If it is the former, he is not really praying to God, who must be worshiped in spirit and truth (John 4:23). If it is the latter, we must ask, why then is he not a Christian? Perhaps he wants to try praying to the God of the Christians, or perhaps he is a seeker who has not repented. Such a man needs to hear the gospel of reconciliation! He cannot presume that God will hear just because he prays. As the religious leaders of Jesus’ day testified, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” (John 9:31)
This is the reality which we must be honest about. The natural man is at enmity with God, because his sin offends God, and without the regeneration of the Holy Spirit he cannot please God (see Romans 8:7-9). Sinners against God ought to have zero expectation of their prayers being answered. Even Christians, before we believed, were in such a position.
Standing in the gap: intercession
If you’re reading this as a non-christian, I do not know if you feel a little uncomfortable that Christians believe your prayers aren’t acceptable before God. That would break the illusion of unity with Christians, wouldn’t it? And yet, all you were trying to do was to selflessly intercede, praying for another group of people. Well, did you know that intercession is a very christian concept? Without it, we Christians have no certainty our prayers would be answered too.
Mark these words, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” (John 9:31) The religious leaders who said this did not grasp that they were sinners too, but everyone of us, believers or not, have committed sins. God would not have to listen to our prayers. In the words of Calvin, “the holiest of men cannot hope to obtain anything from God until he has been freely reconciled to him”. Now this is where the good news comes in: it is possible to be cleansed of our sins and reconciled to God!
And what makes reconciliation possible is the work of an intercessor, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He died in the place of sinners, resurrected to give them a place in the kingdom, and now stands at the right hand of the Father to advocate for his people (1John 2:1). This is why Christians end their prayers “in Jesus’ name”, and have confidence to come before the throne of God (Hebrews 10:22). And for non-Christians, your priority is to seek reconciliation – no other prayer can be as needful to your soul as the plea for forgiveness through Jesus Christ. And the wonder of it all is that God mercifully listens to those who are truly repentant: “he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.” (Psalm 102:17)
What should Christians do about this ‘pray for’ trend?
- Pray, of course! Since we have the knowledge that our prayers shall be heard in Jesus’ name, of all people we should pray. We pray with the trust of a child that our heavenly Father will listen and answer according to his loving will. However, we may not want to carelessly ask everyone on social media to pray too.
- Pray for the repentance and salvation of those who witness disasters unfold. Often, God uses bad news to shake people out of spiritual slumber – to the reality that mortal life is short. Sometimes people wind up arguing who should take the blame for tragedies, but remember Jesus’ response to news about the (likely militant) Galilaeans who were brutally killed by Pilate? And what did Jesus think about the (likely religious) victims of the Siloam tower accident? “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Loss of life is always tragic, but it is equally tragic for anyone alive to remain spiritually dead.
- Teach one another how to pray by biblical principles. Young believers do not automatically ‘know’ how to pray properly (though their sincerity is real). The disciples also requested Jesus to teach them how to pray. Now there is so much to be said and learnt about prayer (for example, Calvin took >50 pages in the Institutes), perhaps we can never fully appreciate the mystery of how man can communicate with God. Nonetheless here are some relevant points:
- Let us direct prayer to the only true God, who is almighty, good, and holy; who revealed himself in Jesus Christ; who is to be approached in faith.
- Let us pray according to the examples of Daniel and Jesus. When prayer was made illegal, Daniel kept his prayer routine and did not hide it. When prayer was popular, Jesus told his disciples to pray in the closet secretly. In our situation, this may mean that we live in a way that people can tell we would pray and care for those in need, without us announcing to everyone on social media that we’re praying.
- Let us pray humbly and reverently, because we are appealing to the King of heaven. Let us claim nothing which is not promised to us in the Bible. Let us refrain from vain repetition or empty phrases (Matthew 6:7).
- Let us pray confidently – if we ask anything according to God’s will he hears us (1John 5:14). We do not pray in our own pitiful names, but in Jesus’ name. This is how the prayer of a righteous person has great power (James 5:16).
- Let us confess that even our prayers are imperfect. Far too often we ask amiss. Yet to God’s praise he still hears us and the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, who intercedes both groaningly and silently (Romans 8:26).
Concluding my thoughts on this trend, I do wonder if this careless expression of prayer is partly the fault of us christians. We might have done outreach by approaching friends and strangers, to ask if we may pray for them. They sometimes tell us genuine troubles for which we rightly pray and help, but too often we don’t properly evangelise, nor pray for their repentance. We think it is good enough to direct their attention to God, without addressing their spiritual needs. Then we tell ourselves we’re sowing seeds when we could be scattering leaves. The result is a widespread misconception of a jolly good god who will hear any selfish or materialistic request, but will not judge. But that is not Jehovah God.
And to those who believe and are made holy, God is incredibly good. It is a wonder that God does not only forgive sins, but invites sinners to converse with his Majesty in prayer. To him be the glory and dominion forever. Amen.
photo credit: ITT Bombay