Praying for the world
One of the sides of prayer that we’re often most comfortable thinking about is that of prayer for other people. The traditional name for this is intercession and it’s a vital part of our life as Christians. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for the world first, and only then for our own needs; this isn’t a bad pattern to keep to in all of our prayers.
What happens when we pray?
The short answer is that we don’t really know! We know that prayer isn’t meant to be some kind of magic we work on God to make him do what we want. At the same time, Jesus told us several times that we should be persistent and disciplined in praying, to keep going when prayers don’t seem to be answered.
Perhaps the best way that I’ve found to see it is that prayer is how God somehow allows us to share in his work in the world. When we can’t affect a situation in any other way, we can still share in what God is doing through others. When we have the opportunity to help someone or to make a difference ourselves, then we seek God’s help and strength to do so, trusting that his work through us will somehow lead to more than we would achieve by our own efforts alone.
Often this has as much to do with allowing God to shape our thoughts as it does with ‘getting our prayers right’ in the first place. St Paul in his letter to the Romans says that God the Holy Spirit actually prays to God the Father from within us. When we don’t know what to pray (or even what to think) about a situation, God can take over and include us in his conversation with himself! Prayer for others can be a wonderful but challenging experience if we listen to ourselves and to God as we pray.
How can we pray?
It’s good to be specific in your prayer, and to stick at it. It might help to have a list of people and situations that you’ll pray for, and refer to it regularly. If there are many things on your prayer list, don’t try to rush through them all every time. Part of this prayer is to concentrate on what you’re bringing to mind and to God, and rushing through things tends to feel a bit like a shopping list! It’s probably better to spread things over a few days or a week – though there may be a few people or situations you’ll want to pray for every day.
There are other parts to prayer, but one way or another it’s good to let yourself be still for a few minutes. First ask the Holy Spirit to help you to pray. You might read a bit of the Bible or use the prayer for the week (usually printed on the weekly readings sheet in church) to help yourself to come closer to God. Then just use your list or whatever else is on your mind to ask God to do what’s right and best in each situation – even if what’s best isn’t actually what you yourself would want.
You don’t need elegant words, or even any words at all – bringing together your focussed concern for others and your trust in God (however weak that feels!) is what matters.
Ideas for prayer
Start with what matters most to you, whether people, parts of the world or any kind of issue. The more it matters to you, the easier it’ll be to keep praying.
Then use the news! Whether you read a paper, watch TV news or listen to the radio, take a note (at least mentally!) of anything you’d like to pray for. You could even get into the habit, if it’s quiet when the news is on, of praying as you read, listen or watch. It may affect the way you think about the world.
The weekly welcome sheet in church lists a few people who’ve asked for the church’s public prayers. You could also look at the prayer board by the south door and take a couple of notes for the week’s prayers.
Most Christian charities and mission agencies are happy to provide monthly or quarterly prayer lists, to let you know about some of the areas in which they work, and to help to focus your prayers. Contact any you already support by giving, and ask to receive these if you don’t already.
A couple of warnings and an encouragement
First, don’t be surprised if the answers that come to your prayers aren’t always the answers you would like. God does answer prayer, but not always with a straightforward ‘yes’. Sometimes his answer can the gift of strength to accept a different situation from the one we would have chosen.
Second, look out. If you’re praying for a person or a situation, God may challenge you to do something else about it. Be ready to find that you’re meant to be part of the answer to your own prayer!
Lastly, do talk to me or to Marian about how you pray. We all keep learning, and advice from how someone else has found they can pray may be very useful.
Rev’d Nick Watson