I urge, then... that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority... 1 Timothy 2:1-2
It’s that part about “kings and those in authority” that I want to focus on.
How good are you at obeying Paul’s “urging” to pray for such people? Or do your prayers tend to be very centred on yourself and your own immediate circle?
The problem, in my experience at least, is that praying for such big, vague categories of people often seems unsatisfying. Even if we try to make it a little more personal - actually naming a prime minister or a president, say - it’s much more difficult than praying for someone we actually know, and whose circumstances we are familiar with.
This applies not only to prominent leaders but also to other wider concerns.
My wife and I attended a service a few days after the terrible 2004 tsunami - and to judge by that service the tsunami might very well have never happened. I suspect we may have prayed about Jack’s ingrown toe-nails, and possibly Mrs Brown’s missing cat. But the thousands who died, or were missing, or were left bereft, stranded, homeless and despairing - no, not so much as a mention.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly good to pray for Jack’s toe-nails and Mrs Brown’s cat: we Christians are, after all, a family - God’s family - and in families even relatively trivial things can matter very much. But our eyes should be taking in the bigger picture too, for we are also part of the world - God’s world - and that too should be reflected in our praying.
Perhaps we subconsciously think, “But with prayers like that you can never know if your prayers are doing any good - you never see any clear-cut answers.”
Well, no, you don’t. But isn’t that where faith comes in? We pray for these things simply because God has called us to - and as to the “results”, well, we leave them, in faith, with God.
I don’t remember much now of what the college principal said when I was training for the ministry. But one thing sticks vividly in my mind. He must have been speaking on just this theme, because at one point he became quite animated and said something along these lines: “I don’t claim to know how prayer works, but I truly believe that when I pray about some situation in China, something happens in China.” That, surely, was absolutely right.
So a question for all of us, certainly me included: Is it time we broadened our prayers and widened our vision to take account of the big issues in our world?
Here’s a practical suggestion. If you don’t do this already, why not make a point each day, after praying for needs close to home, of praying for other categories of need? To do this effectively you will need to use some of the printed or on-line material which is available in such quantity.
I would suggest three possible categories.
First, a missionary concern. For me, as a Baptist minister, this tends to be the Baptist Missionary Society. But there is no shortage of missionary organisations, denominational or not, that we can take a prayerful interest in.
Second, a relief or development agency. Again, for me this tends to be Tear Fund, but here too the options are many and varied.
Third, an advocacy organisation, focusing on the needs of people (not only Christians) who are persecuted for conscience’ sake. I personally rely on Christian Solidarity Worldwide, for whom I have worked as a volunteer, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
This kind of praying calls for discipline - it’s no good starting up for a week or two, and then gradually letting it fizzle out. No: we need to keep plugging away, trusting that God has each and every prayer safely filed away (so to speak) waiting for the moment when an answer is appropriate - even though we may never ourselves see that answer.
A beautiful thing happened to me this morning - I received a Christmas card from some people in Pakistan.
Now, I have never been to Pakistan, and I know virtually no Pakistani Christians, but for many months now I have been praying systematically for persecuted Christians around the world, and Pakistan comes round regularly in the material I use.
For all I knew my prayers were disappearing into thin air. But occasionally I back up those prayers with a post-card, and write a short message on it. And sure enough...!
Only God knows the value of our prayers, so let’s get down to it, whether in our personal prayers or in church (a word here to those of us who lead worship!).
Jesus told his disciples to “open your eyes and look at the fields.” Might he not be saying to us today “Open your eyes and look at the world”?
Lord God, thank you that you care about even the smallest things that trouble and concern me. But please help me to remember that this hurting world also belongs to you, and to take its needs seriously.