Prayer: It's Not About You

A few years back I taught a class on prayer. I’d decided to start with The Lord’s Prayer—as I always do. I remember reading that prayer for the hundredth, maybe thousandth time and suddenly seeing what I hadn’t seen before. I guess that’s how Bible reading goes; you never know when a text will bloom right in front of you. 

Anyway, I was reading the prayer and noticed all the pronouns: “Our Father,” “Give us,” “Our daily bread,” “Forgive us,” “Our sins”… They were all plural and all inclusive.

That startled me, a twenty-something girl living in perhaps the most individualistic society ever to live on earth. [This is America, after all—independence is kind of our thing.] Up until that moment, I thought of prayer as a time to tell God what I was feeling, a sort of vent session between friends in which I unload all my stuff and He listens patiently. Occasionally I prayed for sick people, but mostly I prayed for me. 

Lately, as I’ve read and re-read The New Testament, I’ve come to realize prayer isn’t really about me, not primarily anyway. Prayer is about us

Prayer is, fundamentally, communal. 

The Apostle Paul lived this, repeatedly asking the early church to pray for him, repeatedly praying for the early church. He made the act of intercession one of his highest priorities (which makes sense for a man raised from the almost-dead by the prayers of the disciples).

He says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people" (I Tim. 2:1-2).  

He writes in Ephesians, “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" (Eph. 6:18).

According to Paul, filled with the Spirit of God, the body of Christ depends on each member; each part belongs to each and every other part so that when one member hurts, we all hurt and when one member prays, we’re all healed, blessed, filled…

We quote James often: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” But we skip the first part of the verse: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

Prayer happens in community. It binds people to one another. When you pray for someone, you become invested in them, rooting for them, loving them.

A couple years ago I decided my prayers were too selfish. I found myself praying for twenty minutes without ever mentioning someone outside my immediate family. I noticed I was wallowing, talking and talking and talking about my problems or frustrations. I realized I needed to get outside myself and take a look at the bigger picture.

So I tried this: For one month I took praying for myself off the table. Instead of the usual all-me prayer, I focused entirely on praying for other people.

And it was a magical month.

I grew noticeably closer to the people in my life. I became significantly more interested in the health of my church, getting involved in places I hadn’t ever before. I started visiting sick people—because I wanted to know how my prayers were working out and I wanted to know how to better pray. 

I felt connected to something, like I belonged. I felt like, in prayer, I was fighting for something that mattered.

Today, I make it a point to pray for other people. It’s too good and too powerful not to do. 

For me, praying for other people looks like this:

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This is my prayer board. It’s beside my desk at home. On it, I pin the names of people I want to be praying for. It includes urgent needs—people who’re sick or grieving or sad—but mostly it’s full of people I’ve committed to love. I have family on the board, the members of my small group, the leadership at my church, the women in my Wednesday morning Bible study, missionaries. It includes young people in whom I see kingdom-potential and writers I’m tempted to be jealous of. 

I pray for these people almost every day. 

Similarly, I use Instagram as a portable prayer board, thanking God for the people who appear in my pictures and in my feed, asking Him to bless, use, shape and fill them.

These methods allow me to constantly have these people in mind, to carry them around with me and continually offer them up to God.

Praying for others dramatically changed my conversations with God. It made prayer more than a wish list and more than pity party. It helped me see beyond myself and realize the greater work God has for His people. It made me feel like I was a part of something meaningful and big. 

Martin Luther used to pray for three hours every morning (that’s the legend anyway) and I always wondered, hearing that, what in the world he was praying for. Now I think I get it. I bet he was praying, person by person, for the world.