As I write this article, I have just come from a prayer meeting. We spent about forty-five minutes sharing prayer requests, after reading Scripture and praising God for a while, and then we spent another forty-five minutes praying about the requests. I brought home a long list of needs to share with my wife, Mary.
Like many other Christians, I do quite a bit of praying. Some of it is done in prayer meetings. We open my classes with prayer at Dallas Seminary and pray for the concerns of my students and myself. We pray in faculty meetings and in committee meetings on campus. Chuck Swindoll once mentioned in a Dallas Seminary chapel message that he had never been in a place where there was so much prayer. "Whenever I turn around on campus," he said, "people are praying!" I usually pray with students who come to my office for one reason or another. Since I attend a praying church, we do a lot of praying there too. Most Saturday mornings I pray with a group of men at church.
One of the things I have noticed about prayer requests is that they are usually for a person. The request may be for oneself, a family member, a friend, or a more distant acquaintance. And usually these requests have to do with some physical need of the individual. Frequently someone requests prayer for the salvation or spiritual restoration of a friend, but usually the requests are for healing of some kind.
I believe these are very legitimate requests, and I never hesitate to pray about this kind of need. God is the Great Physician, and He can certainly restore people to health if it is His will to do so, either directly or by using medical practitioners and medications. Certainly Jesus showed great concern for the physical needs of people when He was on the earth. His compassion and acts of kindness for people who were hurting reveal the heart of God for the sick and physically debilitated. Furthermore James encouraged his Christian readers to pray for the healing of their brethren (James 5:16). Peter and Paul both encouraged believers to cast all their burdens on the Lord, and this must include our burdens about health and healing (1 Pet. 5:7; Phil. 4:6).
However, when I read the New Testament, I find that the apostles did not usually pray for the physical ailments of the people in the churches to which they wrote. Rather, their concerns were primarily for the spiritual health and growth of their readers.
Take, for example, the apostle Paul's prayers in Ephesians 1 and 3. In chapter 1 Paul prayed that the Ephesians would gain wisdom and full understanding of their God. Paul asked that they would understand and appreciate their hope, God's inheritance in them, and the greatness of His power. In chapter 3 he prayed that God would give the Ephesians inner spiritual strength. The results he anticipated were that Christ would have full control of all aspects of their lives and that they would be able to appreciate God's love for them more fully (Eph. 1:18–19; 3:14–19).
In Colossians 1 we read Paul's prayer that the Colossians might fully understand God's will so they might live in a manner that would be worthy of the Lord and would please Him. He prayed that they might bear fruit in every good work and grow in their knowledge of God. He also asked the Lord for their steadfast endurance, patience, and gratitude to God for His goodness to them (vv. 9–12).
Paul told Philemon that he prayed that Philemon would share his faith energetically and that he might appreciate all the good things God had given him (Philem. 6). He wrote that Epaphras constantly prayed that the Colossians would stand mature and confident in God's will (Col. 4:12).
Paul frequently prayed that God would make it possible for him to visit his readers so he could continue to minister to them (Rom. 1:10–12; 1 Thess. 3:10; Philem. 22). He prayed that the Corinthians would do what was right (2 Cor. 13:7). And He prayed for the salvation of the Jewish people (Rom. 10:1). He also asked the Roman believers to pray that God would deliver him from hostile unbelievers when he visited Jerusalem, and that the Christians there would accept his ministry to them (15:31). He asked the Colossians to pray that he would have opportunities to proclaim the gospel clearly (Col. 4:2–4).
Paul probably told readers that he prayed for their spiritual needs because these are things all of them needed. I suspect that when he heard that someone in the Roman church, for example, was sick, he prayed for that person too. The fact that he was writing to churches and to individuals who would read his letters in churches affected his comments about his prayers for them—he would naturally mention things of importance to the whole congregation.
Nevertheless these passages in Paul's writings have encouraged me to make the spiritual needs of the people for whom I pray more of a priority in my own prayer life. Praying for spiritual needs is similar to preventive medicine. These prayers bring down divine power and fortify the lives of people so they become stronger and less susceptible to spiritual maladies and temptations. We need to pray for the sick, but we also need to pray that God will keep people from getting sick, spiritually and physically.
Jesus taught His disciples to pray that we would not enter into temptation (Matt. 6:13). What Christian parents have not prayed that prayer for their children? He also told the disciples to ask God to send laborers into the "harvest fields" (Matt. 9:38; Luke 10:2). He instructed them to ask God to strengthen them so they would be able to endure persecution faithfully (Luke 21:36). And He told Peter that He had prayed that his faith would not fail (22:32). How often have we prayed like that?
In the midst of persecution the early Christians prayed that they would be bold in sharing their faith (Acts 4:29). They also prayed for Peter's release from prison (12:5). Paul instructed the Christians in Ephesus to pray for their government leaders so that there would be peace and that the gospel could continue to go forth unhindered (1 Tim. 2:1–4).
As I have sought to give this type of prayer a more significant part in my prayer life, I have discovered that most Christians immediately see the value of it and join in enthusiastically. Their reaction is, "That's really worth praying for!" And it encourages them to include these prayers when they pray.
So let me challenge you to review the prayers in Scripture—to rediscover what the inspired writers prayed for when they prayed for people. Then I would encourage you to incorporate petitions or similar requests in your prayers, letting the apostles' priorities shape your own intercessory ministry.
Thomas L. Constable (ThM, 1966; ThD, 1969) is chairman of the Bible Exposition department at Dallas Theological Seminary.