Podcast listener named Nathan writes in to ask about prayer. “Pastor John, I’d like to see 2016 become a revival in my prayer life. I want to be honest when I tell people I pray for them. I’ve read through many theologies of prayer, but I would love to hear any practical tips or methods for praying for other people, specifically for a spouse, children, the lost, leadership, friends, infirm, etc. Do you have any suggestions to refresh my prayer life?”
Called to Pray
It may seem too obvious to be mentioned, but in my experience there is real motivating power to see my obvious duties stated with simple clarity in the very words of Scripture themselves — instead of just kind of vaguely knowing that I have a duty — to actually see what the Bible says. So let’s start there to help Nathan and ourselves, because all of us share his desire, probably.
Piper: “God tells us to pray, and then gives us lots of examples for how to do it.”
The Bible commends what Nathan is longing for; namely, regular prayer for other people. Specifically, it does so with explicit commands and by numerous examples. For example, the command of James 5:16: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” So Nathan should take heart that his desire is exactly in line with what God wants him to do. Pray. Pray for other people. Pray for one another.
The “one another” in that text implies that the people you are connected with are people you should pray for — not only them, but for sure them. Pray for them. And to do so is to please God. It is what he tells us to do: To do it pleases him. And that should just give us a warm, sweet, comforting sense that when we get on our knees and intercede for somebody, God is smiling upon us, because we are doing what he said to do.
Then there are the examples of Scripture, not just the commands that tell us what to do, but the examples of Scripture where, for example, Paul is praying for his kinsmen, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). Wow. I can’t tell you how many times that text has encouraged me to see Paul earnestly interceding with his Father for the people he loves to be saved.
So just to hear those words in Scripture can be very encouraging and motivating — empowering for us to press on. He is praying for unbelievers there, but he also prays for believers in Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 3 and Colossians 1 and Philippians 1. Those great prayers of Paul, wow.
I would just encourage Nathan and all of us: Meditate long on and pray through the prayers of Paul. The Philippians 1 example goes like this: “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9–10).
I have found these prayers of Paul incredibly valuable both in inspiring me to pray for others this way, but showing me, modeling for me, how to do it. That is what I would encourage us to do is just make those prayers so much a part of us that we can’t help but pray this way for other people.
Inviting Others to Pray
Then there are Paul’s invitations to the readers of his letters to pray for him. “Brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
“Meditate long and pray through the prayers of Paul in Ephesians 1 and 3, Philippians 1, and Colossians 1.”
Also, Romans 15:30–31, “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable.”
For me to hear the greatest man who ever existed, short of Jesus, to have him ask for prayer this way is so life-giving, so warm. It just makes me want to get on my knees and do that for somebody, because Paul, if he needed it — good night! — everybody we know needs prayer like that.
So I think that is about the most motivating thing I could say that God tells us to pray and then he gives lots of examples for how to do it. He loves to see us do it, which is probably why Revelation 5:8 describes the prayers in the golden bowls in the hands of the elders as incense before God.
What does incense before God do? Well, it just fills his room with pleasant fragrance. That is what it does. What a beautiful image to get down on your knees with and say: I am right now going to light a sweet smelling lamp or candle, and it is going to fill the room of heaven with a fragrance this afternoon or this morning that God is going to be pleased by.
Seven Simple Prayer Tips
That is the most important thing I could say, but that is not what Nathan asked for. He asked for tips. He asked for suggestions. So here they go. I am just going to bang away. And, really, these don’t have biblical authority, because these are just kind of growing out of Piper’s experience and that is what saints should do for each other. We should share what we have discovered.
1. Use a List.
Use a list, and break it up in categories. We are talking about people now, all right? You probably over time are going to know more people, have more people who ask you to pray. You will have your circle of relationships grow so that one list is hopeless. You have got to break it up into pieces, various groups.
I find that creating a notebook in Evernote on my iPad, I have got a notebook called prayer. And under prayer, I have these different kind of groupings, and you can add people to various lists and then you can decide on when you are going to pray for those people. So use lists.
2. Concentric Circles
Think and pray in concentric circles with the closest relationships near the center and then move out to the more anonymous prayers for groups and ministries and nations. For example, in my Evernote folder, I move from my immediate family at home — that is, the three of us, well, actually two now that Talitha is in college. But it used to be three.
I move out from there to the children and the grandchildren who live away and then out from there to the ministries I am associated with and the people in Bethlehem Baptist Church and desiringGod.org and Bethlehem College & Seminary. I have a whole slew of people that I pray for there.
“Pray in concentric circles, from your closest relationships out to all the nations.”
And then I move out to the church planters that I know and the Treasuring Christ Together fellowship. Then I move out to ministries like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition and Training Leaders International and a lot of friends there that are on my list.
Then I move out to my neighborhood and a few people I have written down in the neighborhood, and sometimes, just in my jogging-evangelism that I do in good weather. I will meet people, and they will tell me their name, and I ask them what I can pray for and that goes on one of my lists. So concentric circles is one way I handle the diversity of those lists.
3. Use the Word of God
Pray the word of God over these people. This will keep your prayers from being merely repetitive. Read the word of God first. Meditate on it. Pray in it. Then pray what God shows you from the word for the people that are appointed to be prayed for that day.
4. Compare Your Prayers
Periodically assess your prayers for them by comparing what you pray with what the New Testament prays. I gathered in one place — and I think this is available. We could check, Tony, and make it available. I think it is available at Desiring God. I gathered into one place all of the things that are prayed for in the New Testament — a list of about 40 different prayers. I use that list not every day, but periodically. I just run through it and say: Okay, am I neglecting anything important that the New Testament prayed for?
5. General and Specific
Mingle general prayers with specific prayers. A lot of people are skittish about general prayers. I love general prayers. Like: Hallowed be thy name all over the world. That is a big, general prayer. Specific prayers are also important. So a specific prayer might be: Grant that Bill would find a job this week. He has been out of work, Lord. Help him find a job. That is specific. You can just see the answer to that immediately. A general prayer would be: Lord, cause Bill to love you more and to treasure you above all. That is a lot harder to detect, right? But so crucial that you pray for.
6. Moment of Quiet
Be quiet over the people and see if God brings things to mind that people might need today and then pray those things if God brings anything specific to mind.
7. Look for Answers
And lastly, I would say: Look for answers. Take note of them. Keep some kind of record, maybe in your journal or in another folder: answers. And what keeps it all fresh and authentic is the way it all flows from the word and goes back to the word, the Scriptures. And I can’t stress enough that we don’t want to become rote. We don’t want to become mechanical and repetitive. And the best way to do that is to let the word be fresh daily and let the word make your prayers for people fresh daily.