There is a mystery to the way prayer works. Often the Biblical commands about prayer and the Biblical narratives about prayer seem to be at odds with one another. Prayer often feels like a two-sided coin.
This semester I would like to compare and contrast the different sides of the coin when it comes to the mystery of prayer. In so doing, I hope you can identify ways that you could grow in your own prayer life.
Prayers for Yourself
Those who tend to pray for themselves more than others find support for their position in verses like these in the Psalms where the psalmists are very much asking God to intervene in their very personal circumstances. The book of Psalms is filled with prayers like these – individuals crying out to God in times of distress.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Psalm 51:1
Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. Psalm 88:1-3
Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. Psalm 61:1,2
The Psalms give us wonderful examples of prayers for oneself. There are also several commands and invitations in the New Testament proving that God clearly wants us to come to Him with our personal needs.
Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. I Peter 5:7
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
Truth and Pitfalls in Prayers for Yourself
These and countless other scriptures clearly invite us to pray for ourselves. God is a good Father who welcomes us to come to Him, with all of of needs and concerns. It is right to do so. We need to do so. But those who only come to God in prayer with their own needs and never to intercede for the needs of others are prone to miss out on all that prayer is meant to be.
These pray-ers can be come self-centered. Those who pray primarily for themselves and their circumstances can become apathetic and hardened to the needs of others and the world. Intercessory prayer connects us with others and the world around us in a way that grows our compassion and helps us see the needs of people around us.
These pray-ers can see God like Santa Clause. They can tend to approach God only when they are in need, when they need God to do something for them. God can slowly become seen as a personal helper, rather than a sovereign God who is at work in the world who invites us to join Him in His work through prayer.
Prayer for Others
Those who tend to pray for others more than themselves find support for their position in verses like these where God’s people intercede on behalf of others and God answers their prayer. The Bible is filled with prayers like these – individuals crying out to God for others in their times of distress.
So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin.” Exodus 32:31,32
“Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” I Kings 18:36,37
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31,32
The passages give us wonderful examples of prayers for others. Not only are there examples of prayers for others, there are many commands to pray for others, proving that God wants us to do so.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. I Timothy 2:1,2
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Ephesians 6:18
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44
Truth and Pitfalls in Prayers for Others
These and countless other scriptures clearly invite us to pray for others. Our God at work and He invites us to join Him in His work by praying for others. He answers our prayers. But those who only come to God in prayer for others never pray about their own needs are prone to miss out on all that prayer is meant to be.
These pray-ers can miss intimacy with God. People who only pray for things happening “out there” can miss what is going in on “in here” (their hearts). There is real intimacy that comes from seeking God for your very personal needs. People who only pray for others miss out on all God has for them in prayer because they do not come to Him with their hurt, frustrations, anxieties, joys, concerns, fears, and hopes.
These pray-ers can see God as distant and impersonal. Often people do not come to God with their own needs because they think God has more important things to do than to care for their personal needs. They focus on praying for bigger and broader things because they don’t think God cares about their minuscule and minute needs.
Justin Christopher is the National Campus Director for Campus Renewal Ministries and the author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.