What, exactly, does it mean to pray for others? What do we do when we do that? How do we go about praying for others?
Doesn’t even need to be for others. Could be for anything. I just use that as an example.
I’m not sure that all Christian have the same concept of petitionary prayer in this regard. For example, worship services in different denominations often have a period of public prayer. And the way this is done can condition one’s private prayer life as well. Form your concept of how to pray.
For example, public prayer tends to have the following elements. And, in my experience, there’s not much variation from one denomination to another.
There’s a prayer for officials, which is limited to the executive branch. A prayer for the president, governor, and mayor.
There will also be a generic prayer for current events, which is topical. It may be for our soldiers. Or some humanitarian crisis.
After this it shifts to specific prays for the needs of various congregants and their family or friends. That’s the general pattern.
Up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with this. Public prayer is bound to be a bit more generic than private prayer.
However, it can foster the impression that prayer is the same thing as “saying your prayers.” Running your through thumb down a checklist.
Indeed, I suspect for some churchgoers, that’s it. They’ve had their weekly allotment of prayer when they go to church on Sunday.
There are also Christians in the liturgical tradition who have their own prayer books. Their private devotional life consists of reciting prayers from their prayer books.
Once again, this tends to reduce your prayer life to “saying your prayers.” Checklist piety. Perfunctory prayer.
Did you pray for “What’s-his-name?” “Let me go back through my calendar. Yes, four years ago, on such-and-such date, I said a prayer for What’s-his-name.”
Now let’s take a different example. Suppose I have a grown son. I raised him in the faith, but he’s drifted from the faith.
Will I pray for him personally? Of course! Will I pray for his restoration just once, then put a checkmark by his name and move on to other prayer requests? Of course not!
How long will I pray for him? As long as it takes. If he returns to the faith before I die, then, at that point, and only at that point, will I cease to pray for his restoration.
And if I die before he returns to the faith, then death will terminate my prayers on his behalf. But I’ll pray for him everyday, as long as he strays.
Let’s take another example. A friend will be interviewing for a job next Wednesday. How do I pray for him?
Well, it’s easy to say when I’ll stop praying for him. When I find out whether or not he got the job.
Before then, I might pray for him everyday in advance of his interview. Or maybe the night before.
I think it makes sense to pray for something or someone as long as it’s relevant to pray for something or someone. Circumstances often have a way of answering our prayers one way or the other. Some prayers have an expiration date, but we continue to pray up to the expiration date.
Sometimes we know the expiration date, and other times we don’t. We simply pray until circumstances moot the need to pray any longer.
We either pray until we get what we ask for, or God, through providential circumstances, makes it clear that we’re not going to get what we ask for. That’s how David prayed for his unborn son (2 Sam 12:15-23). That’s how prayer is modeled in the parables of the importunate widow (Lk 18:1-8) and the friend at midnight (Lk 11:5-8).
If that’s your idea of prayer, then prayer will be intensive rather than extensive. If you pray for certain things on a regular basis, then you can only pray for so many things on a regular basis.
As time goes by, there will be a certain amount of turnover. Some prayer requests will be short-term prayer requests. But some things you’ll pray about for years on end. Some things you’ll pray about until the day you die.
You pray until you get an answer, one way or the other, and that limits the number of things you can pray about. It isn’t a brand new menu every week. It isn’t, “How fast can I get through the old list and begin a new list?”
And prayer isn’t just a way of life. Some petitions may involve you in a lifelong commitment. You don’t know, when you embark, how long the journey will last. Not just a lifetime of prayer, but praying the same prayer for a lifetime—if need be. That persistence, that fidelity, that single-mindedness, is part our pilgrimage. We walk as we pray and we pray as we walk.
And this is one reason the church is a body rather than a clone. Everyone doesn’t have to pray for the same thing. There are individuals for whom we’re individually accountable. Individuals whom God brought into our lives. Like the good shepherd, who searches for a lost sheep, our efforts may be directed at the few rather than the many.