You know that moment when someone shares something very personal with you? They tell you about a difficult circumstance that they are facing and you’re not sure what to say or if you should say anything at all, so you try to just be a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. But at some point their side of the conversation comes to a close and it’s your turn.
You try to quickly rehearse in your head what you’ll say, but nothing seems helpful. So you finally resolve to say what feels like the most spiritual and helpful thing you can come up with in the moment: “I’ll be praying for you.” That doesn’t seem quite good enough, but it was all you could think of.
There are at least two reasons why telling people you’ll pray them isn’t as helpful as it sounds.
1. Because you won’t.
Maybe you truly do have every intention of praying for them that week, but let’s be honest. It’s just not going to happen. We all forget all the time. They know that you aren’t really going to pray for them, and you know it too. And sometimes it isn’t even that we forget. Sometimes we actually have no intention of praying for them at all and we just tell people we’ll pray for them as kind of a Christianese version of “Bless your heart”, or “I hope it works out for you”.
Whether it’s forgetfulness or just an attempt to quickly end the conversation on an upbeat, a promise to pray is almost always just a lie.
2. Because it doesn’t encourage anyone.
When people are in difficult circumstances, one of their biggest needs is encouragement.
By encouragement, I don’t mean that people need you to fix their problems, tell them what to do, or to tell them what they are doing wrong. What I mean is that often times all people really need is to be heard and to feel strengthened to make it through the day. But encouraging someone is actually much harder than it sounds. Usually when we try to say something encouraging what comes out is just a bunch of unhelpful Christian clichés.
“When God closes a door, He opens a window.” What does that even mean?
“Be a warrior, not a worrier.” Literally the worst possible thing you could tell someone in a hard season.
“God has a purpose for your pain.” True, but totally not compassionate.
Most of us know that these kinds of statements do more harm than good, so we play it safe and refrain from offering any encouragement at all because we don’t want it to come out like a robotic and unsympathetic platitude. We’re not sure what to say, but we feel like we should say something so we finally just settle for, “I’m so sorry to hear that. I’ll be praying for you.” But that isn’t encouraging either.
Instead, actually pray for them.
A promise to pray is never encouraging, but actual prayer can truly be life-giving. It’s amazing how much it means to a person when you stop what you’re doing and simply say, “Can I just pray for you right now?”
It’s even ok if you don’t know what to pray.
In fact, sometimes it’s better to not know. When our prayers sound too composed or rehearsed, they can begin to feel a little like the prayer of the Tin Man—a bit heartless. People don’t need an elegantly worded prayer, and God doesn’t need it either. It often comes across far sincerer to pray a few simple heartfelt words than a bunch of lofty jargon.
I’ve literally prayed for people before by simply saying, “God… help. We don’t know what to do here.” It’s amazing how much more those few words can do for someone’s heart than the most graceful of speeches you can muster in the moment.
Don’t let distance or communication medium stop you either. You can pray for people anywhere. Face to face or over the phone are great, but even typing out a prayer via text or email can encourage someone’s heart.
So here’s what I’m proposing. I think it would be good idea to add, “I’ll pray for you”, to the list of cliché Christian adages that we stay away from. Instead, when someone opens up and shares a deep personal need with you, stop right then and offer to pray for them. Your prayer will encourage their heart far more than any exhortation ever could.