What does “I’ll pray for you” mean?

Praying to love...not for results

Confession time and you can join me if you’ve done this too.

  1. I admit it: I’ve forgotten to pray for people before. I’ll hear someone’s troubles on the street or at lunch or at the bank and I say “I’ll pray for you” and I’ve forgotten. It won’t be until I see the person again and remember their grievance or trouble and ask about them that I realize I didn’t pray for them the previous day. I do remember (thankful for a good memory), and the person appreciates that I remember, but I feel bad when I say I will pray and then don’t. I say “I’ll pray for you” and what then does it mean?
  2. I’ll admit it: I find some prayers to be ridiculous and I don’t pray for them. A child wants prayer for a classmate to be nice to them, a youth prays to pass a quiz on Tuesday, an adult prays that their sports team wins the Super Bowl. I have said I would pray for these insignificant things and I don’t. Sure I’ll say “God, hear all our prayers today” but I really mean the important ones. I say “I’ll pray for you” and what then does it mean?
  3. Finally, I’ll admit it: I wonder about the efficacy of prayer. There, I said it. From a youth’s parent dying of cancer, to a young man dying too young, to a friends’ parent dying of resurgent breast cancer, all of which were prayed for by ridiculous amount of people, and none of whose prayers were answered. In all those situations, I can safely say that more love would exist in the world if they lived, and yet our prayers seem to be unanswered.  I say “I’ll pray for you” and what then does it mean?

Yes, I’m a pastor and I feel bad about the above doubts and lapses in pastoral judgment. But perhaps my lack of prayer didn’t mean as much as the promise to pray itself.

My friend Matt Algren pointed me to the writings of Eric Reitan whose recent blog post outlined his own struggles with petitionary prayer (prayers for healing):

A part of me wanted to laugh. Another part of me wanted to blurt out, “That’s absurd! Don’t you think God has better things to do?” Another part–the budding philosopher–wanted to trot out the problem of evil, and ask why this guy expected God to miraculously intervene to heal a bruised thumb when He doesn’t intervene to save starving children, to prevent rapes and murders, to save people buried alive during earthquakes, and on and on. In fact, I wanted to say, a God who did respond to the thumb prayer would be despicable, given that He doesn’t respond to the anguished cries of so many others whose need is so much greater.

I still have trouble making sense of a theology in which God responds to human prayer requests in cases where, in the absence of such prayer requests, He would let those prayed for rot. It seems to me there is a strong argument for the view that either petitionary prayer is needless or it is useless. Either God cares enough to intervene and has the power to do so, or He does not. If the former, petitionary prayer is needless. If the latter, it is useless.

But in the end, Reitan unearths what two people who said “I’ll pray for you” really meant to his ailing agnostic father who is preparing for a difficult surgery.

As is so often the case–the point is about love.

Luigi is far away, and he loves my father, and love expresses itself in tangible ways. As Simone Weil put it (I don’t have the text here in Buffalo, so this is just a paraphrase), “The only way we can really show love for that which is eternal in persons is by caring for their tangible needs here below.” Luigi cannot perform the surgery. He cannot do much to heal my father’s diseased bladder or promote his body’s recovery from the trauma of surgery. He cannot even bring a casserole to the house.

But he can pray. He can pray for healing. He can will that powers greater than he is might reach into this mortal coil, nudge the quantum forces that underlie my father’s flesh, steady the surgeon’s hand, and so move him back towards health.

The neighbor who came by this morning cannot do much for my father’s health. But he loves my father and wants to show how much he cares for my father’s health. A visit is nice, but it isn’t directed towards healing, which is what my father needs. And love responds to needs. The neighbor can’t remove the cancer. Be he can light a candle and say a prayer.

And tomorrow, when I sit for hours in the surgical waiting area, unable to do anything else for my father, I will pray. And if any of you want to do the same, I won’t laugh or call your gesture absurd.

Read the whole post here.

To me, it doesn’t really matter what you think about the efficacy of petitionary or intercessory prayer, whether God chooses to heal people, whether God doesn’t notice things unless we pray for them, whether God will bring peace to Egypt if we pray. What matters is that you love a person, you love peace, you love God’s children, then you pray for them. When we are helpless to do anything else to help someone we love, then we pray. It’s an expression of love, a necessary component of our relationship with one another and with God. Referencing the Simone Weil quote above, when we can do nothing else to provide for a person’s needs, we can pray as not only an affirmation of our faith in God, but as a expression of our love for God’s creation.

Is it efficacious? Will it make a difference? I don’t know and I don’t think I’m disrespecting God in my doubts. But if I love a person, persons, or a common good, then I pray as a component of my other expressions of love, trusting in God to do the rest.

To the people who I say I will pray for you and forget, or don’t, or won’t…I am sorry. I will try harder to remember that I pray not out of belief in what the prayer does or means, but I pray because that’s what love looks like when I cannot do anything else.

We pray to love not for the results. There, that’s what I wanted to say and it came right at the end of this blog post. Wow. Is it really that simple?

Thoughts? Anyone out there?

(Image credit: “Prayer” by Sid Turner on Flickr)

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Comments

  1. says

    To be honest I think we should feel concerned we have a pastor who has doubts about the efficacy of prayer. And one who if they believe prayer is effective, it’s only effective when we pray about the “Big” things. Of course then we must sit in judgment over what is big and what is not. I do agree that prayer is an act of love. But it must be more than a way of empathizing with someone who is wounded. At times the article falls into a “when we can’t think of anything else to do, prayer is nice” To me prayer is our first act, not our last act of desperation. But then I believe in the efficacy or prayer. God doesn’t always answer teh way I think He will. But he always answers

    • says

      I think we should be honest that people (including, shockingly, pastors) have doubts and struggle about prayer’s meaning. And by talking about my own struggles with prayer and lifting up a small source of inspiration, I hope others find meaning for their own struggles…not for them to chalk it up as “another pastor to be ‘concerned’ about.”

  2. Scott says

    Growing up in the 70′s and 80′s I always felt that youth pastors and pastors never really wanted to deal with the hard questions. I appreciate people who are willing to just lay it all out and let people sort through stuff on their own. For me, it’s nice to know that a fellow pastor struggles with these same issues. And I don’t mind one bit letting the laity know. They struggle too. It’s time to quit pretending that Christianity can be neatly packaged and that we should never question our faith or practices.

    Peter doubted, look at his role in the church. Thomas doubted. John Wesley doubted. Mother Teresa had her doubts. If we’re honest, we all have our doubts.

    Jeremy, I understand what you mean about the efficacy of prayer. I mean who is the prayer for anyway? It’s like we are telling God “John is sick in the hospital” and God says to the angels “WHOA, did you know John is sick and in the hospital???” Nothing irks me more as a pastor than people who think the more people we get praying God will hear and must answer our prayers! And I think Wesley was quite wrong when he said God does nothing but in answer to prayer. God can do whatever God wants! God is not some machine that only works when I put a quarter in and pull the lever. Prayer is definitely a mystery.

    I highly recommend Richard Foster’s book, “Prayer”, as well as Philip Yancey’s book, also called “Prayer.”

  3. says

    I’ve stopped saying “I’ll be praying for you” unless I really mean it – like I add it to my prayer list in “remember the milk” so that those people/situations actually come to mind as I pray (I don’t just pray down the list, but seeing those names everyday in my calendar keeps them in my mind) and then I do set a reminder date to follow up with the person. For most situations (Sunday mornings, grocery store parking lots, etc.) when I won’t remember the concern/situation I stop and pray right then and there. People have always been open to having me pray for them no matter where we’ve been…and I’ve prayed over the phone a lot when I’m not able to get out to see someone (weather or illness, or if a concern comes up during a random phone call).

    I believe prayer is powerful and many people feel unable to pray when they’re going through stress or struggle…especially people facing a crisis that is shaking their faith and/or desire to pray (when I’m angry at God I really don’t feel like praying, but I welcome the prayers of others on my behalf).

    As for the efficacy of prayer I know it shouldn’t be managed in terms of “results,” i.e. did I get what I wished for? I’ve seen too many people treat God like Santa: “I’ve been a good little Christian now cure my mom of cancer” and when mom’s cancer remains it feels like coal in one’s stocking. I have seen prayer change me and my attitude towards situations and people, and I have seen prayer genuinely influence situations because I’m making myself more available to the power of God’s love working in and through me. Making myself available to the powerful presence of God through prayer dramatically changes me. That doesn’t mean that the situation itself may be different as a result of my prayers, but for sure I am less anxious and behave differently and that may be what helps the situation resolve in a loving way. (e.g. if every single person prayed for world peace every day and it was foremost in our minds would we still have war? yes, we’d have those religious fanatics who would fight one another about the right way to pray, etc. but I admit that when I’m not actively praying for peace then I don’t think too much about it…)

    Finally, prayer is a great reminder to me that I am really only in control of my choices and nothing more in life. Admitting that I’m powerless but trusting in God’s grace and goodness and belief that God truly is at work in this world goes a long way in my prayer time. I do truly believe that God is always at work for good and prayer helps me be part of that by making myself available to be changed by God’s love!

    btw, I’m highly amused by the automated google ad at the bottom of the page as I type this response:

    “Bonnke Miracle Prayers For You – God’s power now!” with a “submit prayer button for CfaN.org/prayer

  4. says

    I’m the seminary graduate, lay leader, and Director of Christian Education whose family and closest friends know that if they want me to pray out loud, I need advance notice. After warning the family not to ask me to offer the blessing on the spur of the moment at holiday meals or other gatherings, I have adopted the practice of saying “no thank you” when they forget and ask me in front of the crowd. I have almost never in my life prayed using words that I think or speak. For me, prayer isn’t sentences. I like the question that Scott posed about who the prayer is for… surely God knows what is in my heart before a petition or praise has a chance to take the form of a well-turned English sentence. If we are the hands and feet of Jesus, then maybe our prayers should be more concrete and tangible… as an act of praise for the God of Resurrection, even when I am holding on to concerns and deep pain, perhaps my prayers should bear fruit as they unfold.

    I absolutely affirm the importance of verbal prayers for those who need/want/love/rely on/rejoice in them. I think that spoken prayers (both in liturgical setting and in the form of sharing joys and concerns) are an important part of our lives in community as Christians. I love these prayers in the context of a worship service because it’s powerful to ask for forgiveness, for strength, for blessing, and for hope, as well as to thank, honor, and rejoice in the gifts of the Spirit… all in one voice. This is one of the ways our congregations develop their particular communal theologies together. The times of sharing joys and concerns (when we truly open up) begin to bind us together as we learn to trust one another build a community of compassion. That’s the efficacy of verbal prayers for me.

    When I tell someone I’ll be praying for them, I mean that I’m going to bring their concern (or joy) to my congregation at prayer time. Of course, I honor the practices of others. I’m just not going to pretend that something works for me when it doesn’t… that’s why I need advance notice to pray aloud for a group. I either need to find a pre-written prayer, write one, or decide what song or other interactive method I’m going to use. When I preach, I use a sung benediction (The Trees of the Field, usually 2279 in The Faith We Sing… sing it twice, faster the second time, and don’t forget the clapping in the chorus)

    For those of you who worry about these things, don’t worry about my soul… I pray every day. I just can’t recite any of the prayers to you. If you’re terribly concerned, drop me a line, and I’ll describe some of the actions that I regularly experience as prayer.

  5. Guy R says

    I’m a little confused by your main point. Are you saying that “The ultimate goal of prayer is to express love to others and not to recieve answer to prayer” or are you saying that “People often pray in order to express love, not because they are looking for results.”

    Your analysis was anecdotal, but I’m familiar with the question (i.e. What do I mean when I say ‘I’ll pray for you’, when I rarely do)

    I do think that you have a glaring omission here though; I don’t see a single bible passage! What does God’s word say about prayer! I’m certain it isn’t slient on this issue.

  6. says

    I don’t believe God is interested in our words as much as He is our hearts. He know what we want long before we even know ourselves. Prayer doesn’t have to be a long drawn out process. I believe much can be accomplished through just a few words as long as our heart is in the right place.

  7. Carolyn says

    1. Confession time: when someone is a total jerk to me, I say, “I’ll pray for you” in a snarky way. It’s when I actually mean, “You are mean” or even “I think you are a terrible person.”

    2. One of my friends from the EOC taught me to pray for a person (genuinely) right after I end the conversation in which I promise to pray for them. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a breath prayer or blinking with intention, but God knows my heart.

    3. I figure this about prayer: it makes me feel better. If God isn’t really going to respond perceptibly, or *gasp!* God doesn’t exist and I’m praying to air, I can’t control any of that. But prayer helps me. It helps me get centered. It helps me connect with the Being that I believe is God, and that makes me feel loved. And that helps me get through whatever I’m going through.

    @ Marla, I am in total agreement with you that prayer can take many forms. “Those who sing pray twice” is on my Facebook “About Me.” I embody this statement. Singing is my prayer life. Right now my choir is singing Rachmaninoff’s Vespers and it truly is a worshipful time for me. I’m immersed in the theology when I sing, and I express every note from the bottom of my soul.

    @ Brian, I have to say that it doesn’t seem right to insist that pastors have to embody absolute belief or even parrot it. It’s arrogant to assume that one’s own beliefs are all right and everyone else is all wrong. I would be arrogant to act like my atheist friends don’t have good points and valid critiques, even of my own faith. Jesus showed us that those who follow him- Christians- must be humble. I don’t pretend I know everything. Just because I have a firm belief that God exists and I have experienced God, that doesn’t mean I have to be right. I intentionally leave possibilities open, to keep myself humble and to challenge myself: if I need God to exist, why do I have that need? Why do I need to believe God hears me? What would happen if I truly believed God didn’t listen? Doubt is not a sign of weak faith, it is a sign of strong faith. Strong faith can withstand ambiguity and live with questions.

  8. gabriel says

    I know this to be true. Prayer is talking to GOD. Period. Jesus, the perfect one, prayed. Not only did he pray, but at times he could pray ALL NIGHT! I could be wrong, but, I think the only people who can do that are the persecuted christians. I believe no prayer is too small for GOD. When you pray, GOD doesn’t have to answer a single one. He’s GOD. Part of the problem is that we don’t know everything about a given situation. We’re like Job who wonders why evil happens to good people. And guess what? Job probably never found out why he was sick, or why his first ten children died! Does GOD have to answer to us? Nope. He simply wants to see our faith. We can’t see what happens in the spirit world, so how do we know if little prayers are answered or not? Our walk is by faith, not by sight. I believe that if I pray about my xbox 360 game “skate” would work in my xbox, he may or may not answer it (it’s scratched) but, I took time out of my day to talk to him. Prayer to me is just another way to say I’m talking to the creator. We call it prayer because he’s so much more than any one of us that it deserves its own special word. I KNOW that without a shadow of a doubt he may or may not fix my 360 game but I have gotten closer to him because I talked to him. If someone wants me to pray to GOD about their grass being greener or that they get a raise. then, fine. If I don’t forget, I’ll pray for that. What could Jesus possibly pray about for 6 or 7 hours? Eventually all the big prayers have been prayed for! I believe that as christians (including myself) we live in a time where we don’t need prayer to get us through day to day(i hope i’m wrong about this). I could go on but I don’t want to. My whole point: PRAY! Why? We can’t see what happens in the realm where Jesus is! Since that’s the case. We won’t know the power of even the smallest of prayers until he tells us. (If he’s told anyone this feel free to comment about the last sentence.)

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