Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6.18)
In these days when most people walk around with mobile phones in their pockets or mashed to their ears, what I’m about to describe will sound quaint to anyone younger than 30 or so. But there was a time when talking on the phone meant staying put until the conversation ended. Moving about during a call required lengthening the cord. Kitchen phones with cords spiraling to the floor were common sights, and many had foam-filled shoulder rests glued to their handsets so talkers could hold long conversations hands-free. Lengthy calls and idle chat were verboten in our house, as the line needed to remain free in case members of my parents’ church needed their help. They were also forbidden in my best friend’s home, because his mom thought hanging on the phone while working on other tasks distasteful. “Phone-huggers,” as Mrs. B called them, were a favorite gripe. “Who wants to talk to someone who’s not paying attention?” she’d say. “If you’re cooking, tell me and we’ll talk later. I don’t want to pour my heart out while you’re making gravy. That’s just rude. And don’t get me started about people whose lines are busy day and night…” (Sometimes I think they invented call waiting just for Mrs. B.)
It may also seem quaint that “back then” the telephone was a common metaphor for prayer. In part, this was because it was the quickest, easiest way to contact anyone, regardless of distance or time of day. So preachers compared prayer with phone conversations to stress God is never out of reach—a message that worked its way into popular gospel numbers like “I Can Call Jesus Anytime,” “Operator (Give Me Jesus on the Line),” and “Jesus on the Main Line (Tell Him What You Want)”. The telephone’s imperfections also figured into the metaphor. God’s line is never busy, we were told. He’s always there to pick up the phone. We can call Him no matter where we are. Such quips encouraged us to be spiritual phone-huggers, taking full advantage of God’s accessibility and interest in what we say. Frequent, lengthy talks with Him were our privilege.
We don’t hear the metaphor these days, since the phone is now as much a nuisance as convenience. The same goes for texting, IM’s, and email. Our fast-isn’t-fast-enough world of ring-tones, acronyms and emoticons, has cheapened prayer. We want to Twitter God while we multitask, jumping on and off so quickly we seldom reach that golden moment when running out of things to say about us turns our focus to others. How often do we hang on long enough to pray earnestly for others? Do we finish with us and click “send” or resort to ticking off names like children praying bedtime blessings on Mommy, Daddy, Bubby, Sissy, and Cousin Tommy, who’s sick with measles? How many of us pray for one another like we should? I know I don’t, which is why Ephesians 6.18—and many similar verses peppered through the Epistles—grabs me by the scruff of my neck and gives me a good talking-to. “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests,” it says. “With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
There are all kinds of prayers, Paul says: recited ones, like The Lord’s Prayer; ritualized ones, like mealtime grace; prayers of penitence, thanksgiving, faith, entreaty, intercession, and so on. There are all kinds of requests, he says: for mercy, provision, protection, insight, comfort, etc. He points this out to remind us these options aren’t available solely for our personal benefit. The prayers and requests we use to bring our needs to God are also useful when praying for others. Paul implies we should pray for each other with the same fervor and consistency we pray for ourselves. This requires some pre-work. Upholding others in prayer as Paul instructs necessitates identifying with their situations, conflicts, sufferings, and fears as though they’re our own. Empathetic prayer asks more than briefly mentioning another’s condition, perhaps tossing in a few symptoms of what afflicts them. It expects us to agonize with their pain, tremble with their uncertainty, and stretch our hands to God from their valleys of confusion and doubt. “Be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints,” Paul writes. Alertness insinuates authentic, spirit-to-spirit connectivity that grips us with urgency and tenacity to pray in depth and detail until God’s answer comes. We always keep on praying for one another.
Teaching Us What to Do
Rushing through prayer for one another—treating it as an itemized to-do list for God—defeats its capacity for teaching us what to do. The investment of proper time and attention to pray empathetically for others rewards us with meaningful responses to their needs. It increases our potential to serve as instruments of faith, encouragement, and wisdom. Earnest prayer fills the hollows in words of comfort to those in sorrow, hope to those in distress, and guidance to those who seek direction. By alerting us to the pressures confronting those we pray for, it opens our eyes to ways we can provide practical assistance and relief. In the end, praying for one another in depth and detail blesses us by addressing deficits in our lives. Our compassion increases. We’re enriched with better insight to life’s complexities. We grow in wisdom, knowledge, and experience we apply to our own problems. Finally, praying for one another multiplies our opportunities to watch how God answers prayer in every circumstance. His line is never busy. He always picks up when we call. He never tires of listening to us. Making time always to keep on praying for one another keeps us hugging the phone, because there’s always something important to discuss with God.
When we uphold one another in empathetic prayer, the time and attention we invest are rewarded with meaningful responses and insights.