There's a sentiment that circulates every now and then on social media, and it's going around again. It says something like this: if God answered every one of your prayers today, whose life would be better besides yours?
The implication is that we are all selfish beings who pray only for our own good and forget that we have the ability to harness the power of God Himself for the benefit of others, others that we often claim to love.
I think it's more complicated than that.
I think that when we pray for ourselves, our souls just cry out from the depths of our being and yearn for whatever it is that we need or want in the moment. Our ache can just kind of take over and declare our words for us, and when it has no words, the Holy Spirit has our back. Because we are acutely aware of our own situation, we have a little more confidence entering into prayer on our own behalf. We know all the details.
When it comes to others, though, we know that there is so much that we don't know. There are things in this life that are complicated, and we can't pretend to understand even a fraction of them - especially when it comes to a life that we are not living ourselves. I think sometimes, we start to pray, but then we wonder if what we're praying for is what that other person really wants.
Does someone in the grips of cancer want healing? Probably. But what if their most pressing prayer need is comfort? Or rest? Or strength? Does someone who has lost a loved one want comfort? Almost definitely. But what if their most pressing prayer need is more practical, like provision? Or companionship?
We understand, instinctively, that this human life is complicated. We understand that there are so many layers to every situation, so many factors in every circumstance. So many variables in every heart. We want to pray for others, but...what do we pray? How do we figure out what the greatest need is and pray for that?
What if we're praying for the wrong thing?
James talks about how useless it is to tell someone to keep warm if we have an actual coat that we could give them. Sometimes, I think, we feel that same uselessness in prayer. I think it can paralyze us. Because what if we walk up to someone in our church or in our neighborhood, someone in deep soul pain, and we tell them we are praying for their healing and healing is....sixth or seventh down on their list of real needs right now? It's a terrible feeling. None of us wants to feel like we're making things worse.
And what if what we're praying for them is not what they actually need? (Uhm, what if what we're praying for ourselves is not what we need? We trust God, as always, to respond graciously and give us only what we need; He will do the same for them.)
So I think there are two solutions to this problem that we have in prayer. The first solution is rather straightforward: ask. Ask someone what their prayer need is. Ask them what their soul is most longing for right now. Take an interest in their situation and find at least some of the answers to the questions that you know are involved. "Hey, I know you're going through a rough time right now. If God would do one thing for you, today, what would it be? Great. Then I'm praying for that." And pray for that!
The second solution is also pretty straightforward, but it takes a bit of ego-control: pray for others what you pray for yourself. When you're lying in bed at night crying out to God from the depths of your soul, realize that someone else's soul needs the same thing. If you're praying for healing, pray for someone else's healing. If you're praying for strength, pray for someone else's strength. The truth is that at our core, we are all human. We all experience the same kinds of very human needs, even if the circumstances are different.
And you just never know. Maybe what you're praying for is sixth or seventh down on their list, but maybe your answered prayer is the one that makes it possible for their number one need to be filled. Or maybe when your prayer is answered for them, they realize the depth of a thirst they didn't know they had because it was so clouded by other things. We can be wrong about ourselves, you know. We can be wrong about what we need. God, by His grace, knows what we need, and He will provide it.
And so what if what you pray for them isn't top on their list? What if they get it anyway? What if you pray for healing, and healing was eighth down? Is it any less a blessing for that person to have healing? Is their life worse off because God was gracious to them? Of course not.
So just...pray for one another. It's not as complicated as we make it. At least, it doesn't have to be.