It's an occupational hazard: "Pastor, please pray for me." When I first began as a pastor, I said "OK," and went on my way. No one told me people actually expected me to pray with them. Right then. About whatever his or her need was. I was corrected by some older women at Southside Baptist Church in my hometown, where I was the 22-year-old pastor (25 brave people who called me when I was young, single and didn't know a thing). Over the years, I learned to do two things: ask people what they wanted me to pray for and pray right then.
Over the years, I've heard the usual litany of requests: pray for an upcoming doctor's appointment, someone who lost a loved one, a troubled teenager and a fractured marriage. People have cried on my shoulder, asking me to pray for someone they love that is destroying his or her life and needs Jesus. I pray hard when that request is made.
I've also been asked to pray for dogs that aren't acting right, irritable cats and even for a lost cow (I wasn't sure if I should pray for the cow to be found or to be saved). One adorable 4-year-old girl looked at me with big blue eyes and asked me to pray for her goldfish who was upside down in his water. How do you pray for the resurrection of a goldfish?
I don't know if this story is true, but I once heard about a pastor who was asked to pray for a young woman named Nikki. When he asked about Nikki's condition, he was told that Nikki was a young mother whose husband had left her for his ex-wife. She had cancer that required an operation, and now as a result of the surgery, she had lost her memory. The pastor was moved by the plight of this poor woman. He asked which hospital she was in. The reply came that she was on the soap opera "The Young and the Restless." He prayed for "Nikki" with gritted teeth.
People seldom ask for my opinion about their prayer requests. The longer I study Scripture, the more I am convinced we pray for the wrong things. Most of our prayers are for God to solve our problems. Don't get me wrong, I think we ought to pray those prayers - though we might need to add a few items to our list.
Pray that people will be wise. Wisdom is understanding reality and living life according to that knowledge. For example, a woman came to me whose husband had left her. She was in tears, understandably. As we talked, however, it was apparent there had been problems in the marriage for many years, including multiple affairs on his part. I asked her if she really wanted him back. She paused, as if it was the first time she had considered the question, and then softly replied, "No. I do not want him back. He is toxic to me and to our kids. Honestly, I feel sorry for the woman in this latest affair. He's going to wreck her life, like he wrecked mine." That woman was experiencing the birth of wisdom. I pray more people are wise.
Pray that people open their eyes to what God is doing. Often we expect God to deliver answers to our prayers like Amazon Prime delivers packages: anything more than two days makes us wonder if the answer has been lost in transit. But if you pause, you can see God has not forgotten you or your needs. No matter how hopeless you feel, God's hand can still be seen in your life. When Job cries out that God has not answered him, God reminds Job in a not-so-subtle way that he is still making the universe spin, controlling the weather and generally thinking about things Job has never thought about. I pray more people open their eyes to God's activity.
Pray that people will have hope. Hope is more powerful than anxiety, more powerful than despair. Hope pulls us forward. I want to pray for people to have hope, not that things will work out, but with the assurance that God is in control. I want people to have hope for their child in rebellion, knowing that God loves their child more than they do. I want people who are picking themselves up after their latest fall back into addiction to have hope that God's power will lift them up and help them start again. I pray more people will live with God's hope.
Pray for all the other burdens of your heart. Pray for the sick, the grieving, the lost. Pray that lost cows will be found and pray cute 4-year-old girls will understand the death of their goldfish. But add other things to your prayer requests. Wisdom. Seeing God's activity. Hope. Pray for these things. For yourself. For your children. For your spouse. For each other. For our leaders. Our Heavenly Father is longing to answer prayers like these.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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