Standing in the Breach for Others & Softening your own Heart in the Process
My last video on YouTube was on the subject of active listening and how some people really can’t hear or receive the messages Jesus gave us (Matthew 13). One of the comments gave me some food for thought because the viewer thought that I was saying we shouldn’t pray for people who aren’t open to hearing God, which wasn’t something I had said at all, but it did make me wonder what people think prayer is all about.
From the comment (and I might be as mistaken as she was in interpreting another person’s message) but I got the impression that for some people prayer is all about making other people turn to God, whether they want to or not. So I thought it might be a good time to talk about what prayer is, what prayer isn’t, what purpose it serves and how to do it effectively.
What Prayer Isn’t
Let’s start with clearing up things that prayer can’t do, because the list is pretty short. First of all, prayer is not a grocery list of things you want from your own personal genie. I feel like most people know this one, so I’m probably stating the obvious, but just in case I’ll include it.
You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?
But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.”
James 4:2-6 (NKJV)
The prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen is based on the premise that God gives literally anything someone asks for and they often misquote this passage from James to support that theology. However, the bible is pretty clear that God determines whether He gives people what they ask for or not based on what He knows is best for them. It doesn’t mean He doesn’t give, it just means that sometimes the answer is “no” and we need to learn how to ask for appropriate things.
The other thing which prayer cannot do is to remove another person’s free-will.
God is sovereign, but He’s not controlling. Part of the character of God is that He is the source of agapē love, which means that He respects our choices and our right to make those choices, even if those decisions have dire consequences. In contrast, an abusive relationship is always controlling and disrespectful of one person’s free-will to the extent that they’re not allowed to breathe without permission. That kind of tyranny is not representative of the love of God and if we love our neighbours as ourselves, we should never do that to anyone either. You can disagree with someone’s choices, but ultimately you have to let them make their own decisions.
One of the ladies I know from church said something very profound once. She said that after her experience of control and abuse in relationships, the reason why she trusts and loves God is because He is all about consent.
The idea that God would answer a prayer which ignored a person’s boundaries is the slippery slope towards witchcraft. Witchcraft seeks to have control over situations and people, but if you believe that God is sovereign, then you don’t need to be in control of the situation, and if you love others the way that God does, then you don’t need to try and exert control over them or ask God to do so. You can respectfully disagree and leave them to it.
What’s the old saying? Let go and let God.
In psychology this approach to other people and different situations is known as radical acceptance. This is where you take a bald-faced look at reality and acknowledge that you cannot change another person or situation, but you can choose how you respond. In fact, that’s your only option.
God’s agapē love is very similar to radical acceptance in that He loves us, but He won’t force us to choose His offer of salvation, which comes with certain boundaries such as repentance.
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:6-8 (NKJV)
This act of self-sacrifice made reconciliation possible with God, but not mandatory, because salvation does entail terms and conditions, such as faithfulness and our own self-sacrifice of forsaking the world to be close to God. Each Christian understands the cost of faith and takes that path willingly and in full knowledge.
So when we pray, it isn’t to force someone who is unwilling to adopt the same lifestyle or believe the same doctrine, it’s actually to help us to have more patience with them and bear with people the way that God bears with us.
What radical acceptance does not mean is to remain in a toxic or detrimental situation with someone who has no intention of changing. Because you are not attempting to change another person or situation after radically accepting that it is what it is, or they are who they are, you then need to make your own changes and remove yourself from the environment. By doing so, you may give that person the best chance of realising the error of their ways. Either way, you can do nothing else.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Matthew 5:43-45 (NKJV)
God loves everyone equally, even the ones who hate Him. He doesn’t necessarily have a relationship with them, but He is ready to receive them if they turn to Him. He has radically accepted that the price of love is that they might never choose Him.
What Prayer Is
Now that we know what prayer isn’t we need to talk about what prayer is and why we need to pray for our enemies. But first it’ll be helpful to define some terms.
The word sin is a Greek word which means failure. Falling short of God isn’t restricted to the overtly evil acts we often attribute to sin, but tends to be an accumulation of failures which lead to a general hardening of the heart towards others and a rather self-centered attitude. The word righteous does not mean to be high and mighty, but actually means to be in right-relationship with God. The only means of reconciliation to right-relationship is through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. If we look to the law of Moses as a guide for how that sacrifice works, an important element is the recognition of sin in our lives and the confession of it before God.
When the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon and devoid of a temple for sacrifices, how did they maintain their relationship with God? The book of Daniel is a useful example of prayer when we cannot offer anything to God and must simply fall upon His mercy and kind nature. The exile was supposed to be a means of teaching the people to rely on Him directly, rather than being lazy about the relationship by killing a lamb to cover their bad behaviour. Most of Daniel’s prayers consisted of confessing sin on behalf of everyone before appealing to God’s character for help.
A useful modern example of this is one of the common prayers found in the Anglican liturgy:
Merciful God, our maker and our judge. We confess we have sinned against You in thought, word, deed, and in what we have failed to do. We have not loved You with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We repent and are sorry for all our sins. Father, forgive us. Strengthen us to love and obey You in newness of life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer is an excellent reminder of all the things we know we should be doing, but often fall short of. Prayer works on your state of mind and the condition of your heart by reminding you of the vast difference between us and God. God is perfect in all of His ways, but we are not. God’s love never fails, but ours will sometimes.
Of course, the best advice and example of prayer is from Jesus Himself:
“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.
“Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Matthew 6:5-14 (NKJV)
So the first piece of advice was not to use prayer as a means of having your ego stroked by other people, and the second was not to bombard God with a bunch of meaningless words. He’s perfectly capable of hearing you the first time and your relationship with Him is not for you to get public recognition through. Instead, it’s all about nurturing your relationship with God, seeking to be more like Him and less like the world, and being invested in the things which matter to God and not just your own agenda.
The Lord’s prayer has you covered if you don’t know what to pray about. It includes other people along with yourself so technically you’re praying for people who hate you, it asks for forgiveness for everyone, provision of basic needs for everyone, recognises the greatness of God, and puts His plans ahead of our own. It’s also very simple and concise rather than verbose and pretentious.
Prayer is less about having the right words and more about reaching out to God for a mutual relationship.
It is, also, about asking for what you want and need. It says that your heavenly Father knows already what you need, but Jesus still says that you need to ask and this is echoed in the passage from James which says that people don’t have the things they need because they’re not asking. Once more, asking God for help, guidance, needs and wants is part of building the relationship. Imagine if you never spoke to your parents, but just expected them to send you money every month? Yes, they might be aware that you need it, but they would probably much rather have a conversation with their child than just fork out cash.
When Words Fail
There is much more to prayer than words. It’s not paying lip-service to God when we pray, and sometimes the more important prayers aren’t spoken anyway.
Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27 (NKJV)
When we are lost for words, or cannot articulate what we’re going through, the Holy Spirit is right there with us to just cry it out. He’s very good at translating the meaning of tears if we’re willing to bear our souls to Him.
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
1 Peter 5:6-7 (NKJV)
When we admit that we don’t have it all figured out and we can’t handle it all on our own, then we’re able to give it to God. When we can admit that we screwed-up, then we can turn to God for help and forgiveness. God wants to help us out, but He respects our personal space and choices.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise. For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.
Psalm 51:10-17 (NKJV)
What God wants most for us is a change of heart. At the end of the day, the people we pray for might always hate us, but that was never the point. The point was for us to change first and lead by example.
During the tough times, we’re supposed to lean on God for emotional support. It doesn’t mean that He steps in, takes over, makes everything ok and solves all of our problems. Rather, He gives us His courage, support and wisdom to help us face situations and make better choices for ourselves. This relationship with God becomes solid, personal, and unshakable so nobody came come along and cause us to doubt God’s love or mischaracterise His nature.
Intercession: Standing in the Breach
As it said in Romans, the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf in prayer when we don’t know what to pray for. The concept of intercession is a very important aspect of prayer, and this is where praying for your enemies really comes into play.
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:1-4 (NKJV)
God’s plan of salvation is for the whole of humanity, but in order to reach people with the gospel and also allow them to make mistakes along the way, God needs time.
…knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:3-9 (NKJV)
Because of God’s holy and just nature He cannot overlook sin and He cannot ignore prayers for justice from the oppressed and mistreated. God must take those prayers into account. However, if He also has devout Christians praying for the redemption of sinners, He can take those prayers into account as well and err on the side of mercy and grace, which is His preferred method of dealing with humanity.
If we all got everything we deserved, none of us would make it to a ripe old age.
The role of Christian intercession prayer is to buy more time for others to come to repentance. God asks us to intercede because His system of justice requires it. Genesis 18 where Abraham asks God to spare Sodom if he finds 10 or more people worth saving, or Exodus 32 where Moses appeals to God’s mercy concerning the idolatry of the tribe. God quickly and easily relents from wrath. He doesn’t even quibble with anyone, or try to convince them that those people are a lost cause. God loves to grant mercy.
We can see an example of God orchestrating the redemption of the city of Nineveh through a very unwilling servant, Jonah.
Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”
Then the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah 3:10 & 4:1-4 (NKJV)
This is exactly the sort of attitude Jesus spoke against in the gospel of Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer. Christians need to be able to forgive others because God is trying to redeem humanity, which means that hopefully heaven will be full of people who did terrible things to you. If we cannot allow others to be shown mercy from God, then we cannot expect to receive it either.
That’s a really tough lesson for a lot of people, especially considering the evils done to some of us over the years. However, God reminds us that our hands were not spotless either, and even so He gave us mercy when we turned to Him with a contrite heart and a broken spirit. That’s why we’re told to pray for our enemies: both to give them time to come to repentance, and also to change our heart so it can be more forgiving.
That being said, we can remain willing to forgive and help people come to God, but we cannot force them to want it too. Once more, Christians do not remove other people’s free-will through prayer or through sharing the gospel. God is a God of consent.
Through radical acceptance we can acknowledge that the locus of control for people to change rests within themselves, not with us. If someone is unwilling to listen or change, we don’t have to remain entangled with them in the midst of their toxicity, we can leave them to their choices and move forward to people who do want to learn and grow. Sometimes love is tough love.
“But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.’ But I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day for Sodom than for that city.”
Luke 10:10-12 (NKJV)
Unless otherwise noted, scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.