When we say to people ‘I will pray for you,’ we make a very important commitment. The sad thing is that this remark often remains nothing but a well-meant expression of concern. But when we learn to descend with our mind into our heart, then all those who have become part of our lives are led into the healing presence of God and are touched by him in the centre of our being,” (Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 87).
Whoa, heavy dude! But, it’s important that we grasp the concept.
How many of us have made the commitment to pray for someone, then forgotten to name them in prayer? I know I have and it leaves me feeling like a bit of washout as a Christian. How can I make such a hollow commitment then fail to actually do anything about it? Doesn’t my failure somehow cheapen the offer or worse, make it into a manipulative ploy so they’ll leave me alone with their problems?
No, not with the kind of prayer that Nouwen is talking about. He’s talking about a prayer of the heart. We typically think of the heart as the seat of our emotions and feelings. But, biblically speaking it is far more. The heart is the essence of who we are and includes not only our feelings and emotions, but our intellect and personality as well. To pray from the heart is to bring ourselves before God in a holistic way.
As we grow as Christians we do indeed feel more and more a sense of compassion and concern for the needs of others. We want to do something, but realize we can’t. Most of the problems and hurts we hear about are simply beyond our frail capacity to do anything about. So we offer to pray instead, a good move.
But what do we actually pray? What are the real needs behind the prayer requests? Is it really healing that a sick person needs most, or is there a deeper issue that needs to be addressed? Perhaps there is an emotional or relational issue that needs to be addressed. Perhaps God is working in and through the illness to draw someone out of selfishness and into a deeper faith. We can certainly ask for healing and sometimes cry out for a miracle, but God may answer our prayer with a “no” or a “not yet” or a disturbing silence. What is really going on? Are we praying for the right things? How do we know?
We don’t and we won’t.
Most of the time I do forget to name particular people and the issues they have shared with me. But, that does not change the fact that they remain a concern for me. I don’t stop caring for people just because their name is not at the top of my consciousness. And more importantly, I don’t stop hoping that God will somehow be able to help them in a way that I can’t.
When Jesus prayed all night long he wasn’t just bringing an extended list to the Father. He was allowing the Father to shape his own heart and his own will in a way that more accurately reflected the holiness of God in Jesus’ life. He was having the strings of his heart tuned to ring with God’s.
When we come to God with our hearts, with our whole selves, our prayers and concerns are prayed for us. “The Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words.” That is, the burdens of our hearts are lifted in a way that only God can do. And God prays in the Spirit for the things that are really needed, things needed for His purposes both in the lives of those we pray for, and in our lives too.
So, next time you come to God in prayer, take a load off and put your list aside. Yes, name those whom the Spirit brings to your mind, but don’t worry about the rest. Your commitment to pray for someone is a prayer in itself. And, when we open ourselves to God and come to him with our whole hearts all our prayers will be answered in his way and in his time and we can say with all integrity, “I will pray for you.”