Prayer, for the Christian, is both a precious privilege and a solemn duty. The Lord instructs us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5.17; cf. Col. 4.2). He taught that “men always ought to pray” (Luke 18.1). Further, we are to be “serious and watchful in [our] prayers” (1 Pet. 4.7).
But, for what should we be praying? Scripture reminds us — and our own experiences verify — that, often, “we do not know what we should pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8.26).
With that in mind, we are in desperate need for the Lord to “teach us to pray” (Lk. 11.1). Let’s explore this matter further, using the word of God as our guide.
Man, for the time-being, is an inhabitant of the material universe. As such, we have physical needs and desires. For these earthly provisions, we must turn to the creator and sustainer of all flesh (cf. Acts 4.24; Heb. 1.3; Jer. 32.27). He, ultimately, is in charge of such matters.
First, we should pray for the necessities of life.
In his model prayer, Jesus counseled us to pray for “our daily bread” (Mt. 6.11). The term, “daily,” may denote either: (1) enough for the present; (2) enough for sustenance; (3) or, more likely, enough for tomorrow, and beyond (see Vine, 143).
Thayer settles on the meaning, “food sufficing from one day to the next” (241). The context, which warns us not to worry about tomorrow’s essential provisions (like food, drink, and clothing—Mt. 6.25ff), favors this interpretation — viz., give us bread enough for tomorrow, that we might not worry over tomorrow’s needs (6.34).
Thanks to the savior’s redemptive efforts, the child of God is now able to
“come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4.16).
Consequently, although the heavenly father “knows the things you have need of before you ask him” (Mt. 6.8), and though we are responsible for working to enjoy these earthly necessities (cf. 2 Thes. 3.10), we should pray for them nonetheless, remembering that he is the source from whom all blessings flow (cf. Jms. 1.17). He may provide these blessings in ways we do not yet fully realize or understand (cf. Rm. 11.36, 33).
Second, we should pray for physical well-being.
(1) Health — It is one thing to exist; it is another thing entirely to exist well. A sick individual may have enough sustenance to survive his illness, but mere survival is usually not preferable.
Instead, we are instructed to pray for the sick, and to pray for our own illnesses, that wellness may be restored (cf. Jms. 5.14-15—as to whether or not this passage embraces miraculous healing, or providential, consider the following observations: “Call For The Elders! — James 5.14-19”).
John prayed that the “beloved Gaius” might “be in health” (3 Jn. 2). Both David and Hezekiah prayed for their own health, when they were stricken with illness (Ps. 6; 2 Kngs. 20). And Solomon, at the dedication of the temple, instructed the people to pray for their own wellness too (2 Chron. 6.28-31).
When Epaphroditus, Paul’s beloved fellow-worker in the Lord, became “sick almost unto death…for the work of Christ” (Phil. 2.27, 30), the Lord restored his health (ostensibly with no miracle involved), both for his sake and for Paul’s (2.27). Can it be supposed that neither of these two godly individuals prayerfully brought the matter to God with urgency and frequency?
Accordingly, while the use of medicines and medical insight (e.g., from a doctor, nurse, or other informed individual) contributes mightily to the healing process (cf. Lk. 10.34), we must remember that, fundamentally, it is “the lord [who] will strengthen him on his bed of illness; [who] will sustain him on his sickbed” (Ps. 41.3).
(2) Protection — In addition to struggling with illness, there are times of severe hardship — even mortal danger — which threaten our earthly well-being. Let us pray for deliverance from these vexations!
After king Herod killed James with the sword, he next set Peter in his nefarious crosshairs (cf. Acts 12.1-4). While the apostle lay chained and guarded by sixteen alternating soldiers in a highly secured prison (v. 10), the Bible informs us that “constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church” (12.5, 12).
Paul too found himself in mortal danger on numerous occasions. Time after time, however, the Lord “delivered [him] from so great a death” (2 Cor. 1.10), and “comfort[ed] [him] in all [his] tribulations” (2 Cor. 1.4). Paul was quick to remind his brethren that his divine protection was due, in no small part, to the brethren “helping together in prayer” on his behalf (2 Cor. 1.11; cf. Phil. 1.19; Phile. 22).
Accordingly, he often begged them to “strive together with [him] in prayers to God,” not only for his own safety, but that he might feel well, refreshed, and energized in all his efforts (Rom. 15.30-32).
Furthermore, he issued the following sacred instruction:
"Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Tim. 2.1-2).
Here, the apostle is not concerned about praying for governing authorities to pass laws that benefit the nation’s economy, protect civil liberties, or in any way advance a political agenda. Rather, prayers for the authorities are to be offered for the Christian’s benefit — “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness.”
Hence, though there is nothing necessarily wrong with praying for such earthly affairs (though we must be careful in such matters — see "Politics: Some Things To Remember"), nor is there anything wrong with praying for the welfare of individual sinners ("all men" — cf. Lk. 6.28; Acts 7.60; see more below), Paul's specific point of emphasis has nothing to do with the condition of the state or of individual non-Christians. Rather, he here commands us to pray for the wellbeing of the church.
Vincent observes that the term, quiet, “denotes quiet arising from the absence of outward disturbance…”; while the term, peaceable, refers to “tranquility arising from within” (217).
The first century church lived in frequent turmoil and oppression. Often, the carnal governments were the source of that oppression. A life surviving persecution after persecution, injury after injury, may be enough to maintain breath in our lungs, but a life devoid of such hostility is much more desirable. Thus, the apostle exhorts us to pray that we may pursue spiritual excellence without fear of harassment. As Wayne Jackson put it:
“It should be noted that the purpose of the prayers is not for the rulers per se…Rather, the aim of these prayers ultimately is for Christians, who desire to be facilitated with the type of environment that will enhance their work of evangelism, to the end that people can be saved genuinely (see v. 3). This is the earnest goal of God’s child” (54).
(3) General wellness of life — In addition to praying for bodily health and security, we should also pray for overall wellness — not just the absence of illness or danger, but the presence of favorable conditions and beneficial opportunities.
For example, the savior instructs us to “pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Mt. 5.44). The preposition, “for,” derives from a word which meant, “on behalf of” (Moulton et al., 651) or, as here, “for the benefit of” (see Robertson, 630).
When others wish harm to come upon us (and even instigate such harm themselves), we are, in turn, to “bless” them (Lk. 6.28; cf. 1 Cor. 4.12). The term which Jesus employs here is, eulogeo (eulogize), which denotes, to speak well of, or to wish wellness upon.
Thus, the lord requires us to do and say those things which “benefit” the life of our persecutor (see Lipscomb, 228). If such prayers for wellness are appropriate for our enemies, how much more are they suitable for our friends (cf. 1 Cor. 10.24; Phil. 2.4), or for ourselves (cf. 2 Cor. 12.7ff)?
Third, we should pray for lawful material desires and comforts.
God is invested in more than man’s bare-bones survival and well-being. He is gracious beyond measure, who “satisfies the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145.15-16), for he is the “father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1.3). He provides both “food and gladness” to one and all (Acts 14.17).
In spite of this, some are prone to petition God for their daily needs and wellness, but balk at requesting the comforts of life, even if those comforts are non-sinful. They will pray for their daily food and health, even for safety in their travels, but neglect or refuse to pray for the more frivolous blessings which God extends to this world (e.g., a better job, good hours, good pay; a nice car; a nice house; success at a competition, etc.).
Others, conversely, approach prayer as if it were a magical elixir, granting man’s every earthly wish, without restriction or qualification. The child of God should be better informed in such matters. Observe the following:
(1) We should involve God in everything — whether serious or frivolous.
Paul wrote: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10.31). We are to “sanctify the Lord God in our hearts” at all times (1 Pet. 3.15). Again, “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3.17).
Does an individual, who endeavors to provide for his own comforts, while willingly neglecting to consult God, petition God, or involve God in the acquisition of those desires, really bring him glory?
Or, can a man who seeks to acquire a desired possession, while deliberately leaving God out of the picture until the very end (when he thanks him for having acquired it), truly say, in good conscience, that he has sanctified the Lord in his heart always? Why pray for necessary air and not comforting wind? Does he not provide both (cf. Isa. 42.5; Ps. 147.18)?
And if we may not pray to God for such comforts, to whom should we pray when we desire them?
Inspiration commands: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4.6). Leave nothing out! Instead, “cast all your care upon him, for he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5.7).
(2) Consider a few godly examples of prayers made for desires and earthly prosperity.
In addition to praying for Gaius’ physical health, John prayed that his beloved friend might “prosper in all things” (3 John 2). The term, prosper, has to do, literally, with a profitable journey, a “successful issue,” and being “lead by a direct and easy way” (Thayer, 260-261).
The apostle did not want his dear, righteous friend merely squeaking by in this world’s transactions with the skin of his teeth. Since his “soul” was already prospering (v.2b), there would be no reason to refrain from desiring more comfortable earthly circumstances too. As Guy N. Woods remarked:
“Here, incidentally, is the standard by which to determine how rich one may safely become: just so long as the soul prospers! So long as one enjoys soul prosperity, his riches bless and benefit not only himself, but others; when they impair spiritual health, the interests of the soul demand, as in the case of the rich young ruler (Mark 10.17-31), that a surgical operation be performed and they be severed from us!” (357).
Is it appropriate to pray for the ability to conceive a child? May a man pray to find a wife, or a woman a husband?
Such familial matters pertain to the desires of the heart and the comforts of this life (cf. 1 Cor. 7.33). Yet, Hannah prayed fervently to conceive a son, which the Lord gave her (1 Sam. 1.5ff). Zacharius and Elizabeth likewise prayed, receiving John the immerser as their child (Lk. 1.5ff; esp., v.13). A godly, happy marriage, though neither a necessity of life, nor necessary to the wellness of the body, is certainly a wholesome desire, for which prayers should be offered (cf. 1 Cor. 7.5; 1 Pet. 3.7).
What about the desire for justice and vindication? After Alexander the coppersmith had done “much harm” to Paul by “greatly” resisting his words, the apostle wrote to Timothy: “May the Lord repay him according to his works” (2 Tim. 4.14). The martyrs of the book of Revelation expressed a similar desire for justice from the Lord (Rev. 6.10).
First, such desires are godly in nature. Those who love the truth of the Lord will naturally hate falsehood and sin (cf. Ps. 97.10; Amos 5.15; Rom. 12.9). All wrongs must — and will — inevitably be made right (cf. Ps. 94.1ff; 1 These. 4.6). One author put it like this:
“Perhaps, it would do modern tenderheartedness no harm to have a little more iron infused into its gentleness, and to lay to heart that the King of Peace must first be King of Righteousness” (McClaren, 375).
Second, no child of God, under the New Testament era, has the right to exact punitive justice against the evil doer. Rather, we are to “give place to wrath,” since the Lord, whose judgments are always true and righteous (Rev. 16.7), has reserved that right for himself (Rm. 12.19). He will punish the practitioner of evil in his own time, in his own way.
Third, the desire for justice must never be tainted by a vindictive, blood-thirsty desire for harm, nor sullied by rejoicing over the calamity of the wicked (cf. Prov. 24.17-18). The sacred text instructs: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rm. 12.14).
“Curse,” here, signifies, to pray against, to wish harm against. Remember, the Lord takes no pleasure “at all” in the death of the wicked (Eze. 18.23). And if the righteous God of heaven is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3.9), how could we ever justifiably harbor such carnal desires toward our fellow human beings?
Therefore, when we pray for justice and vindication, let us, like Paul with Alexander, and like the martyrs of Revelation, take the matter to the Lord, and leave it in his hands. Anything beyond this does no honor to the name of “the righteous judge” (2 Tim. 4.8).
(3) God instructs us to pray for whatever we desire.
Jesus said: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15.7). The terms “whatever” and “anything” frequently describe the contents of one’s prayers in the scriptures (cf. John 14.13; Mt. 21.22; 1 Jn. 3.22; 5.14-15; etc.). Thus, the default setting for prayer is: pray for “anything,” “whatever” weighs heavily or lightly upon your heart.
(4) Nevertheless, there is a limit to these requests — an exception to the rule — and there are qualifications to prayer that must also be observed.
First, acceptable prayers are limited to lawful desires. No prayer for the satisfaction of a carnal, sinful lust will ever be acceptable to God (cf. Jms. 4.3f).
While a man may pray to start a family, it is wrong for him to pray for multiple wives, since God designed marriage for “two” people, a “male and female”, not more (Mt. 19.4-5; cf. 1 Cor. 7.2; 1 Tim. 3.2, etc.).
It is appropriate to pray for justice, but it is wrong to pray for a weapon so you can put your enemy to death yourself.
Praying for success at an athletic competition may be permissible (why else compete but to win, 1 Cor. 9.27?), but praying for victory in order to gloat is highly sordid and contemptible.
In short, if you shouldn’t be desiring it, you shouldn’t be praying for it.
Second, even prayers for lawful desires have their conditions. If we are to pray acceptably, we must:
(1) abide in Christ (Jn. 15.7);
(2) allow Christ’s words to abide in us (Jn. 15.7);
(3) ask in the name of Christ (i.e., by his authority, or according to his will, John 14.13-14; 1 Jn. 5.14-15);
(4) believe in God and his power to answer and provide (Mt. 21.22);
(5) pray with gratitude in our hearts (Phil. 4.6);
(6) keep his commandments (1 Jn. 3.22).
Ultimately, let us remember that prayer, for material things especially, must always be tempered by the following sentiment: “nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22.42).
Man is more than flesh and blood; there is a spirit within (cf. 1 Cor. 2.11; Zech. 12.1)! Thus, it is vital that the content of our prayers embrace a spiritual thrust.
First, we should pray to praise God. Scripture abounds with prayers of praise and adoration to the almighty (e.g. 1 Chron. 29.10ff; Neh. 9.5ff; Rev. 4.11; 5.9-13; etc.). Truly, “the Lord is great and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 96.4).
His character is praiseworthy. God is all-knowing (1 Jn. 3.20) and infinitely wise (Rm. 11.33); he is all-powerful (Mt. 19.26); he is everywhere, filling both heaven and earth (Jer. 23.24); he is holy (1 Pt. 1.15-16), just (1 Jn. 1.9), and immutable in his faithfulness (cf. Heb. 1.12; 2 Cor. 1.18-20); he is the source and essence of love (1 Jn. 4.8) and mercy (Ps. 103.8).
In our prayers, let us praise him for his sterling qualities of character!
His works are praiseworthy. He created all things (Jer. 10.12-13; Heb. 11.3), and sustains them with only his word (Heb. 1.3); more than that, “he has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecc. 3.11); furthermore, he displays his kindness through the providence of sunshine and rain (Mt. 5.45; Acts 14.17), and, conversely, manifests his fierce sovereignty through the punishment of sin (cf. Rm. 11.22; Rev. 2.20-23); in ages past, he demonstrated his mastery over the material universe through signs, wonders, and miracles (Heb. 2.4); and, more wondrously still, he voluntarily suffered and died to save man from eternal ruin (Gal. 1.4-5). What wondrous works (cf. 1 Chron. 16.7-36)!
“Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Phil. 4.20).
Second, we should pray to thank God. Paul ceaselessly uttered prayers of thanksgiving to God (cf. 1 Cor. 1.4; Eph. 1.16; Phil. 1.3; Col. 1.3). The early disciples were grateful for persecutions (1 Pt. 4.12-19; 2 Cor. 1.8-11), for various trials (Jms. 1.2-4), for weaknesses (2 Cor. 12.7-10), for salvation (Col. 1.12; 1 Cor. 15.57) — for everything (1 Thess. 5.18)!
By contrast, an ingrate, who forgets God, is like a reed without water — he will eventually wither into oblivion himself, being forgotten forever (cf. Job 8.11-14).
Third, we should pray to confess our sins to God. In his model prayer, Jesus instructed “his disciples” (Lk. 11.1) to pray: “forgive us our sins” (v. 4). David wrote: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32.5).
While non-Christians cannot obtain forgiveness of sins through prayer (they must, instead, obey the gospel in baptism, Acts 2.38; 22.16), those who have already submitted to the Lord’s plan of salvation may confess their personal sins (1 Jn. 1.8-9), their family’s sins (Lev. 26.40), the sins of their congregation (Rev. 2.18-29; 3.14-22), and even the sins of their nation (Dan. 9.3-20). If they are sincere in their prayers, they will obtain God’s forgiveness (cf. Acts 8.20-24).
Fourth, we should pray for spiritual growth.
(1) Christians must remember to pray for evangelists to spread the faith swiftly and easily, without harassment or obstructions (cf. 2 Thess. 3.1; Col. 4.2-4; Eph. 6.19), as well as for those unbelievers who in stand in need of salvation (Rm. 10.1).
(2) Let us also pray for the spiritual growth of the local church — in faith, knowledge, boldness in spreading the message of the cross, charity, and holiness (cf. Col. 1.9-12; 1 Thess. 3.9-13; 5.23-24; 2 Thess. 1.11-12; 2.16-17), as well as for the church universal (Eph. 6.18).
(3) We should pray for the spiritual well-being of individual children of God (cf. Lk. 22.31-32), as well as for our own progress in the faith and wisdom of God (Jms. 1.5).
This study, though lengthy and challenging, has rewarded me richly.
Let me encourage you, in closing, to engage in a special study examining the scores of prayers in the Bible, paying especial attention to their content. Strive to emulate them in your own prayers, and you too will be far from disappointed!
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