How to Pray for Anyone About Anything
September 13, 1998
How would you rate your own prayer life? If you had to give yourself a grade, would it be A … B … C … D … or F? Or as someone suggested, how about the word “Incomplete”? Before you decide on an answer, let’s try the question another way. Is your prayer life A) Excellent, B) Above average, C) Average, D) Below average, or E) “I need big help!” Probably many of us would choose E simply because we feel like our prayer life truly does need help.
In this message I hope I can give you some very practical advice that could energize your prayer life. As we begin moving in that direction, here are three opening observations to think about:
A) Prayer is both the easiest and hardest discipline of the Christian life. It is the easiest in that the youngest child and the newest Christian can learn to pray. Even the slightest motion of the soul toward God is a form of genuine prayer. If a person says “Lord, have mercy,” they are truly praying. But prayer is also the hardest discipline because it is the most difficult to maintain over a long period of time. In a sense it is easy to enroll in the School of Prayer but hard to get a graduate degree.
B) Almost everyone prays—believer and non-believer alike—and almost everyone feels they could improve in this area. Even in our best moments, we still must admit that we have barely touched the hem of the Master’s garment in the arena of prayer.
C) Prayer presents us with problems both theological and practical. On one level, we are faced with difficult questions regarding the sovereignty of God and human free will. While those questions are important, I do not propose to address them in this sermon. I would rather tackle the challenge of prayer on a purely practical level. When we pray, what should we pray for? I am much more interested in the what and how of prayer because this is where most of us live every day.
“Prayer is the very sword of the saints,” said Francis Thompson. If that is true, why do we often keep the sword in the scabbard? Lee Roberson called prayer “the Christian’s secret weapon, forged in the realms of glory.” Why, then, do we not use it more effectively?
Often we simply don’t know what to say when we pray. I’m thinking especially of those moments when we begin to pray for others beyond our most intimate circle. What do you do when faced with a prayer list of friends, loved ones, neighbors, co-workers, missionaries, and others whom you hardly know at all? Our usual response is to pray like this: “Lord, uh … uh … uh … bless Sally.” Then we go to the next name: “Lord, uh … uh … uh … please bless Bill.” Then we go to the next name: “Lord, uh … uh … uh … I ask you to really bless our missionaries in Ghana.” And on it goes. As one wag remarked, if you took the word “bless” out of our prayer vocabularies, most of us would never pray again.
While I believe it is perfectly appropriate to ask God to bless people, I think we can move far beyond that, and in so doing, dramatically increase the effectiveness of our prayers. We can use Paul’s prayer for the Philippians in verses 9-11 of Philippians 1 as a blueprint for powerful praying. Here is a prayer that fits virtually every situation we may face. If we understand the meaning of Paul’s words, we can truly pray for anyone about anything.
I. Three Requests God Will Always Honor
Paul’s prayer begins with three requests for the Philippian believers. As we pray for others, we should feel perfectly free to include these three requests as our own.
A) Abounding Love — 9a
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more.” Imagine an empty cup slowly being filled with water. When the water reaches the brim, it begins to overflow down the sides of the cup. That’s the picture Paul has in mind—love filling the hearts of the Philippians until it overflows. Gene Getz comments that all of Paul’s prayers in the New Testament begin with a petition for love. That’s because love is supreme among the Christian virtues. It alone will last forever (1 Corinthians 13:13).
No matter how much love we have, our love can always increase. Paul prays that their love would increase in depth and in extent. He is praying that they would love more people and would love them in a greater way. Since the text is indefinite, we should ask if Paul is thinking about A) love for God, B) love for fellow Christians, or C) love for non-Christians. The answer of course is yes. The text is indefinite because our love for God is always tied to our love for other people. If a man says he loves God and hates his brother, he is a liar (1 John 4:20).
It’s easy to understand why Paul’s prayer begins with love. Since we live in a fallen world, we will often find ourselves surrounded by irritable, cantankerous people. Love is the glue that holds the human race together. It enables us to overlook the faults of others while acknowledging that we ourselves are far from perfect.
B) Growing Knowledge — 9b
“In knowledge and depth of insight.” Paul’s prayer continues with a request that the Philippians might grow in their knowledge of God. The particular word for “knowledge” means knowledge based on a deep, personal, and intimate relationship. In context, Paul is asking that their love express itself in an intimate knowledge of who God is.
Sometimes we say that “Love is blind.” God says, “No, love needs clear vision.” Our love needs the guidance of knowledge or else we will end up loving things we ought not to love—and entering into relationships that are not good for us. While love is supreme, it is never enough. Love must be guided by true knowledge. This is the burden of Paul’s prayer.
Where do we find this kind of knowledge? We get it from the Word of God with the aid of the Holy Spirit. As we study the Bible, the Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and reveals to us the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Let a man bury himself in the Bible with an open heart and very soon his whole life will begin to change. In essence, Paul wants the Philippians to learn to think “Christianly” in every situation.
That leads directly to the third petition …
C) Increasing Discernment — 10
“So that you may be able to discern what is best.” That’s a wonderful phrase—”to discern what is best.” The seal of our local high school contains a Greek phrase that means “those things that are best.” It is a worthy goal for any school—and is also God’s desire for every believer. Eugene Peterson (The Message) offers this colorful paraphrase, “You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.” Knox translates this way: “that you may learn to prize what is of value.” The NEB speaks of the “gift of true discrimination.” The NLT offers this translation: “I want you to understand what really matters.”
All those versions ultimately come out at the same place. Paul prays that the Philippians would have such love and knowledge that they would continually make wise choices in life. He is praying that they would not be satisfied with the status quo or with spiritual mediocrity but would push on to true spiritual excellence. In a sense he is asking God for the gift of spiritual discrimination. In our day discrimination has a mostly negative tone, but in the spiritual realm we desperately need to discriminate between good and bad, good and better, better and best. I define this kind of discrimination as the ability to make wise choices under pressure.
The Friday Night Game
I think all parents with young children understand this principle. As our children are growing up, we will correct them by saying, “That wasn’t a good choice you made.” Many of you know that my wife is the administrator of the Oak Park Christian Academy. Every day the teachers say similar words to the students: “You made a good choice” or “You made a bad choice.” Sometimes my wife will even say that to me. Last Friday night we sat in the stands watching a high school football game between the Oak Park-River Forest Huskies and the Downers Grove North Trojans. I am happy to report that the Huskies broke open a tight game in the fourth quarter and won 23-9. At one point one of the Oak Park players committed a foul (a late hit, I think) and the referee threw his flag. Marlene turned to me and said in her schoolteacher voice, “He didn’t make a good choice.” “No, he didn’t,” I replied. “He hit the ball carrier after the whistle blew.”
God’s people need to learn discernment so that under pressure they can make wise choices. By the way, I think this is an important prayer request for parents to offer on behalf of their children. You should pray that your children learn to make wise choices under pressure.
There are really two parts to making wise choices: First, you must know what is right. This is crucial because we live in a world where many people evidently have lost all sense of right and wrong. Everything appears to them as shades of gray. Second, you must have the courage to choose what you know to be right. Yesterday I happened to catch a few minutes of a televised speech by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Many people know of the controversy surrounding his appointment. Some people also take issue with some of his views on certain issues that have come before the court. I personally think he’s an admirable, decent man (who also happens to be a strong Christian) who has often been caricatured in the press. During the question time someone asked how he managed to deal with all the criticism he has received. He replied that the most important thing in life is to discover what you believe to be true, and then to stand up for those beliefs no matter what. He then added these words: “If you do what you know is right, it doesn’t matter what people think.”
True discernment gives you vision to see what is right and then the courage to choose to do it.
II. Three Answers We Should Always Seek
Paul’s prayer continues with three answers we should always seek. These answers are results that flow from the three requests just mentioned—love, knowledge, and discernment.
A) A Blameless Life — 10b
“And may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.” Note two key words in this phrase: The word “pure” comes from two other words that mean “judgment” and “sunlight.” In the first century the shops were often dimly lit which meant that prospective customers would have trouble viewing the wares. When they took the pottery or the fabric into the sunlight, they could see it as it really was. The sunlight revealed the truth. To be pure means to live in such a way that the truth about who we are is clear. It means that people don’t have to wonder about what you are doing in the darkness because you have nothing to hide.
The word “blameless” comes from the Greek word family skandalon, from which we get the English word “scandal.” It originally referred to the bait in a trap that would catch unsuspecting animals. It came to mean a lifestyle that caused others to fall into sin. A “blameless” person is free from moral scandal. It means you don’t stumble into sin and you don’t cause others to stumble by your behavior.
True leadership always begins with character—a fact we seem to have overlooked in recent days. The real power of politics comes from the moral character of the person holding high office. Although a leader may hide behind opinion polls and a favorable economy, in the end what he is (or what she is) will eventually be found out. No one can escape the moral dimensions of leadership.
Immorality in high places corrupts the entire nation. This is true in every sphere of life. If a CEO is corrupt, the whole company suffers as a result. If the head of a university does wrong, the faculty and students share in the shame. And if the president of the United States lacks moral character, there will be a stain on the nation until he is finally removed from office.
When will we understand that there can be no separation between private sin and public duty? Too many people seem to think that the president’s private life doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t impact his public life. They believe that you can sin in one area and still be noble in another area—as if life were a series of water-tight compartments. But as the builders of the Titanic learned, water-tight compartments aren’t. Deliberate disobedience in one area inevitably “leaks” into other parts of life. Secret sin destroys the public trust and renders our leaders impotent in moments of national crisis.
Why are we more concerned about our wallets than our souls? Why are we willing to put up with gross misconduct as long as the economy does well? What has happened in the White House is corrupt and evil and morally unacceptable. Where is the national moral outrage?
It has been said that a nation gets the leaders it deserves. If so, what does that say about America? Verily, we have gotten what we deserve—and it’s not a pretty picture. When we say a leader’s private life doesn’t matter, we are revealing our national bankruptcy of the spirit.
Crisis in the White House
What should Christians say about President Clinton and the just-released report by Ken Starr? Before I answer that question, I want to tell you about something that came to my mind about midnight on Saturday. As I was thinking about what I should say in this sermon, I remembered that on Inauguration Day in January 1993, as Bill Clinton took the oath of office for the first time, Jim Warren of “Primetime America” asked if I would say a prayer for the new president on his nationally-broadcast radio program. I was glad to do so. I hadn’t thought about that prayer in over five years until last night. It took me some time to find it but here it is. I am reprinting the whole prayer so that you will know what I was thinking and feeling on the day Mr. Clinton took office.
A Prayer For Our New President
You alone are the hope of the world! You spoke and the world came into being. You set the boundaries of the nations. You hold the world and all that is in it in your mighty hands.
You raise up one man and no one can pull him down. You pull down another man and no one can raise him up.
Your Word instructs us to pray for all those in authority, and we gladly do that today. We pray especially for our new president, who rises to the mightiest office in the world at a moment of great uncertainty.
He is young, Lord. Give him wisdom beyond his years. He is eager, Lord. Give him sober judgment to match his eagerness. He has great dreams, Lord. Give him insight to know the difference between what is and what ought to be. He seeks a new beginning, Lord. May that new beginning start with a new turning to you. May he remember that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
We ask you to raise up godly advisors who believe in you. May our new president be surrounded by those who honor your Word. Truly the heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord. Grant that our president’s heart might be turned toward you.
Give us leaders who will choose not what is easy, but what is best; not what is expedient, but what is right; not what is politically correct, but what is righteous in your eyes.
May our new leaders guide this country in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake. May they lead us toward peace, strength, compassion and true moral greatness. May your church be stirred up, as never before, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. O God, our hope is in you alone. Some trust in horses, some in chariots, but we will trust in the Lord our God. As you have been faithful to us throughout all the passing years, so we proclaim our confidence that your grace will see us through whatever may come.
Great is your faithfulness, O God our Father. You have been good to us beyond what we deserve. We your people rejoice that you are never voted out of office.
May the name of the eternal, unchanging God be praised in our midst. This we pray in the strong name of Jesus, Amen.
Five and half years later we know that President Clinton repeatedly broke his marriage vows, repeatedly lied to the American people, repeatedly broke the Law of God, and as a result broke the public trust and debased the moral tone of the nation.
I say this not as the president’s enemy but as someone who prayed for him from the very first day, and have prayed for him many times since then. I take no joy in coming to the following conclusion:
“Mr. President, it is time for you to resign. The sin is yours but the shame is ours. Your conduct has disgraced the office you hold. You call yourself a Christian and claim to believe the Bible. Yet your conduct has been far from Christian. You abused the trust of the American people and stained the reputation of the presidency. Mr. President, if there is any honor left in your soul, do the right thing and resign today.”
I make this judgment as an American citizen, as a Christian, and as a pastor. This is not a political judgment nor is it made in anger. It is not about who controls the White House or whether the Republicans or Democrats will win in November. It is a moral and spiritual judgment made on the basis of the Word of God. As a Christian, Mr. Clinton has so utterly failed to meet the standard of a “pure and blameless life” that he has proved himself unfit to hold the highest office in our land.
B) A Fruitful Life—11a
“Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” The Bible often uses the metaphor of a fruit tree to describe both the life of the righteous and the life of the wicked. Regarding false prophets, Jesus declared that by their fruit you shall know them (Matthew 7:20). Last night my wife and I watched “Larry King Live” on CNN, expecting it to be about the crisis in the White House. It turned out to be a one-hour program devoted to former Alabama governor George Wallace. As a native of Alabama who lived through the Wallace years in the 1960s, I found the program fascinating. Governor Wallace was far too ill to appear on the program (he died the next night at the age of 79). I listened as Jesse Jackson, Mike Wallace, Larry King, and George Wallace, Jr. discussed the life and career of a man who started out as a champion of segregation and ended up as a strong proponent of equal treatment for all people regardless of race or skin color. During the discussion, Jesse Jackson noted that man should be judged by his deeds: “You tell what a tree is not by the bark it wears but by the fruit it bears.” That’s precisely what Paul is praying for—the fruit of visible Christian character. A fruitful life is one that is distinctively Christian in every aspect. It reminds me of the question, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The fruitful life can always answer yes.
Note that this fruit comes “through Jesus Christ.” As we are rooted deeply in him, and as we draw our strength from him, his power flows through us and produces the “fruit of righteousness” in us. He is the root and his power produces the fruit.
C) A Theo-Doxic Life—11c
“To the glory and praise of God.” Don’t look for the word “theo-doxic” in your dictionary because I made it up. “Theo” means “God” and “doxic” means “glory” (as in the word Doxology). A “theo-doxic” life is one that brings glory or praise to God. Such a person actually enhances God’s reputation in the world.
When people see you, do they naturally think about God? Does your life serve as a good advertisement for the Lord Jesus Christ? As a child I was often reminded that I was “Dr. Pritchard’s son.” Because I bore my father’s name, I had an obligation not to ruin his name by the way I lived—and to bring honor to my earthly father if I could. The same principles holds true in the spiritual realm. We who bear God’s name must live so that others can see Jesus in us.
Before we finish, let’s step back and consider how great this prayer is. One 19th century writer called it “The Life of God in the Soul of Man.” In some ways it covers the whole range of what God wants to do in us and through us.
1. It starts with abounding love
2. That manifests itself in knowledge and discernment
3. Resulting in the ability to make wise choices under pressure
4. And the visible fruit of a righteous life
5. That comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ
6. So that God alone gets the glory.
What a fantastic prayer. Here is the application.
Pray this prayer for yourself.
Pray this prayer for others.
Who are you praying for today? Remember that prayer is not a ritual but a matter of the heart. To pray for someone else is an act of hidden kindness that only God sees. And because God alone sees your heart, he will hear your prayer and reward you in secret. We can touch people through prayer that we couldn’t touch any other way.
Prayer is the very sword of the saints. Use it! God gave you a secret weapon so that by your prayer in secret you can change the world.