Because Paul wrote to churches, almost all of the prayers we have in his letters are for believers. We can be sure he prayed persistently and passionately, with many tears, for the lost (Romans 9:2–3; Philippians 3:18–19). But most of what we know about Paul’s prayer life centers on what he prayed for his brothers and sisters in the faith, including these seven big prayers — prayers we can regularly pray for the followers of Christ we love most.
What do you pray most often for the people you love most? The question reveals an uncomfortable amount about us (and our prayers).
First, do we pray for those we love? Prayer is one of the most powerful, thoughtful, loving ways we can love anyone we love. Yet we still often struggle to persevere in prayer for others. With countless compelling reasons to pray — to ask the God of infinite power, wisdom, and love to move in the lives of our friends, family, and neighbors — we find a thousand excuses not to. What some of us need to hear most is simply a reminder to stop and pray for the ones we love.
But if we do pray for them, what we pray really matters. And we often ask God for less than we should. At least I know that I myself have sometimes asked for less than I should — for my wife, my son, my parents, my church family. When we think to pray for others we love, our minds can default to practical, earthly concerns — that God would guard or improve their health and safety, or that he would prosper what they do at work, or that he would protect our relationship with them, or for whatever other daily or weekly needs that immediately come to mind.
Prayers like these, while good and even important, fall short of the mountain-moving prayers we might pray — prayers like the apostle Paul prayed. If we prayed more like he did, and God answered, we wouldn’t be able to keep ourselves from praying more for the ones we love.
Why We Pray for Less
Tim Keller observes, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in circumstances” (Prayer, 20). Think about that. From his thirteen letters, we know literally dozens of ways Paul prayed for Christians, and yet he never asks God to change their circumstances. Yet that is what many of us pray for most.
Why do we default to smaller prayers for circumstances, rather than praying for the bigger, deeper, longer-lasting spiritual realities under what we see and experience? For many reasons, of course, but we can try to isolate a couple.
First, smaller prayers come easier. We naturally, even apart from knowing Christ, think (and worry) about health, work, safe travel, and relational conflict. It doesn’t take spiritual sensitivity to want a sick person to get well (or a healthy person to stay healthy). Even those who hate God may wish a good life for one another. Big, Paul-like prayers, however, do not come naturally. God-hating people do not stumble into prayers like these. To pray these prayers with real focus, desperation, and hope requires the Spirit to work that focus, desperation, and hope in us. He opens our eyes to the awesome and terrifying realities below our everyday circumstances.
Second, God’s answers to our biggest prayers are often slow and less visible. If we pray for someone to heal, they may get better in just days or weeks. If we pray for someone to travel safely, we know how God answered in a matter of hours. If we pray for a successful interview, we can find out very soon how it went. But if we pray for God to make a brother more like Jesus, we may not see real, reliable fruit for years. If we pray for God to protect our child from Satan and all his temptations, we likely will not witness thousands of ways he has done it. If we pray for God to keep our pastor faithful through to the end, we will not know for sure if, or how, he has done it until that man finally hears, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).