“I’ll pray for you”. Do those words feel like the “consolation prize” of the Christian life? The throw-away offerings of help when you don’t know what else to say? Or maybe when others don’t really want to help—they’ll just pray for you instead. Are they tack-on words when you conclude a heavy conversation and you want to add some parting substance?
Even if you personally grasp the weightiness of prayer, do you ever feel bashful as you offer those words, hoping the other person appreciates the value of what you are promising?
Does this not reveal our natural tendency to lessen the significance of prayer?
There is one event in Christ’s life where we sometimes read his offer of prayer as mere hopefulness, and as less than ultimately helpful. That circumstance takes place on the night of Jesus’ betrayal when he informs his disciples that they will fall away, and most pointedly, that Peter will deny him three times. In Luke 22:31, Jesus tells Peter: “Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you like wheat”—a fearsome statement indeed! But he then goes on to offer the very words we are considering in this post, “but I have prayed for you”. He doesn't even put his statement in the active sense! How comfortable do we feel in providing such consolation to our loved ones in trying times: "I have prayed for you"? Wouldn’t we at least say, “I will be praying for you”?
Jesus' statements, however, are revealed to be entirely accurate as the events of that evening unfold. The disciples are sifted like wheat. Judas is separated as chaff, the others are scattered to the wind, Peter denies Christ three times, but ultimately his faith does not fail, and when he has turned again, he strengthens the brethren. The Son of Man’s prayer is answered. It is powerful and it is found to be effectual in the face of the believer’s greatest foe—much akin to the petition “deliver us from the evil one”.
At this point you might already be raising the objection in your mind, “yes, but that’s Jesus. His prayer is always answered, my prayers are certainly less significant than his”. And this is where the New Testament’s appeal to the power of our prayer is so vitally important. In James 5:16-17, where we find that memorable verse about the prayer of a righteous man having great power in its effects, we also see a reminder from Elijah’s life. James does not offer Elijah’s prophetic command that it will not rain as any sort of example to us (see 1 Kings 17), but the fact that he was a man like you and me, and that he prayed, and that the God of all creation listened and answered. Isn’t it amazing that one does not have to be Messiah to be heard by God? One does not have to be personally perfect for the perfect God to answer our seemingly-puny-and-insignificant prayers. And yet of course, it is precisely because we are united to that perfect Messiah by faith, that our prayers ascend to the throne room of heaven itself, and they are hurled back to the earth in power like fire, peals of thunder, flashes of lightning, and are as earthshaking as an earthquake itself (Revelation 8:4-5).
So then, why do we pray? Why do we say to others, “I will pray for you”? Merely because we’re commanded? Simply because we are privileged to do so? Is it only because our Father delights in communing with his children and is glorified in it? All of these are certainly true! But may I offer that we pray because it is immensely significant! Prayer is powerful, it is effective, it is eternally weighty and valuable, and it is our God-supplied means of seeing his will brought about on earth as it is in heaven.
Such a vision of the effectiveness of prayer should be enough to alter our thinking next time we hear or utter the tiny little words, “I’ll pray for you”.