“I asked him, sir – ‘Shall I tell him you are praying for him?’ and he said, ‘No. I am not exactly praying for him, but I am thinking of him and God together.’”
Prayer is something of a mystery to each of us. It is not so much a mystery like who built Stonehenge or killed JFK or if the city of Atlantis ever existed. It is not so much a mystery in the sense that we don’t know what it is or how it works or if and why it exists at all. Instead, it is a mystery like the ocean or the cosmos or life itself. In other words, we know what it is and can describe, at least in part, how it works, but no one can possibly exhaust all that it is or does or how it came into being in the first place.
Some years ago I came across the above quote in George MacDonald’s novel, Thomas Wingfold, Curate. It is a quote that I have found helpful in giving words to something I have experienced about prayer for nearly as long as I can remember praying. Sometimes my prayers feel direct and precise. Sometimes there is a specific request and a specific need and a specific sense of urgency that gives focus to my prayers and keeps me coming back to a specific sentence– “Lord, please do _____ for _____.” But other times … many times … the request, the need, and the sense of focus can feel lacking. A person or situation I am concerned for comes to mind, but what they need or what I should pray doesn’t come with much, if any, clarity at all. In these moments I find myself praying, but in a way that, in MacDonald’s words, doesn’t feel so much like praying for the situation or others as it does thinking of them while also thinking about God.
There was a time when I thought this was the poorest kind of prayer – like I was lacking in some sort of faith, ability, or effort. But now I see it much differently.
Thinking about others and about God together can be a fruitful way to pray. It means thinking of these people you love and are concerned for while at the same time thinking of the One who both loves and is concerned for us. It can be a fruitful way to pray when we don’t know what to pray. In these moments we find ourselves thinking about that situation or this loved one while also thinking about who God is and what he has done and desires. In these moments our thoughts of God and of the person or situation run side by side like the parallel rails of a railroad track – seemingly separate and never quite connecting. And yet, as we find ourselves thinking about the other person and what they are experiencing while also thinking about God and what we have come to experience in him or know that we have been promised to one-day experience, we find the two connecting much in the same way as the railroad tracks appear to connect the further down the line we look. So we find ourselves thinking about things like his love and grace or patience and justice and willingness to take the first step. As we continue to think about these things we find ourselves praying that those around us or we ourselves might know or be able to demonstrate this sort of love or grace or whatever other trait it may be. So it can be a fruitful way to pray when we don’t know what to pray because in time we find the words to pray.
And it can be a fruitful way to pray when the words to pray never seem to come. Those times do come when even after we pray we feel no more certain about what the person or situation needs or how we should be praying for them. But as we think about others and God together we are reminded of ultimately Whose help is needed and Who’s example leads to life and Whose hands we entrust each other and ourselves too. So while it may not feel like the railroad tracks ever quite connect in our minds, we know they lead in the way that is true and that they are connected at each step along the way.
So not sure what or how to pray? Maybe try thinking about others and God at the same time and see where it leads you.
- Joe Welty