I am regularly vexed by how shallow my prayers can become. When I pray for something—and I know that all prayer is not for things—what should I pray for? Only for my family? For someone I know who is ill? For God to help me in the day ahead? For God to resolve whatever problem is currently worrying me? I often sense that there is some content that I’m missing when I’m praying. Do you sense the same thing?
With this concern in mind I recently embarked on a quest to figure out what I was missing scripturally about the content of prayer. I decided to focus on the letters of Paul since he has a lot to say about this topic. I read through all of Paul’s letters, taking notes on everything he asks people to pray for, or that he mentions others are praying for, or that he in fact is praying for in his letters. Once again, I wanted to uncover areas that needed attention in my own prayer life that are emphasized in Paul’s letters.
I discovered that there are three main categories of what to pray for in Paul (applied to praying for other believers—though you can pray the same for yourself). Here is a summary:
- Ask God to grow them in their Christian faith.
- Ask God to make them bold in sharing their faith.
- Ask God to deliver them from evil/the Evil One.
Here are the details:
The most common category that Paul prays for is that believers might grow in their Christian faith. Though this is the largest category, it is interesting that this is one area of prayer that many of us can easily neglect when we pray for others. Here is a list of the types of things you can ask God to do in Christians you know. (Note that you can also ask the same things for yourself!)
- Ask God that they might be of the same mind with other believers. (Romans 15:5-6)
- Ask God to fill them with joy and peace in believing and in hope by the power of the Spirit. (Romans 15:13)
- Ask God for his people to do the right thing when there are relational conflicts. (2 Corinthians 13:7 in its broader context)
- Ask God to make his people “complete.” (2 Corinthians 13:9)
- Ask God to give a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of God. (Ephesians 1:15-17)
Ask God to enlighten the eyes of the hearts of believers (Ephesians 1:18-19):
- to know the hope of his calling
- to know the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints
- to know the surpassing greatness of his power toward those who believe
- Ask God to grant them strength through his Spirit in their inner selves so that Christ might dwell in their hearts through faith. (Ephesians 3:16-17)
- Ask God to root them and ground them in love. (Ephesians 3:17)
- Ask God to help them comprehend along with other believers what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that they might be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18-19)
- Ask God for their love to abound more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, that they might approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ. (Philippians 1:9-11)
Ask God to fill them with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, resulting in them (Colossians 1:9-12):
- walking in a manner worthy of the Lord
- pleasing him in all respects
- bearing fruit in every good work
- increasing in the knowledge of God
- strengthened with all power according to his glorious might
- attaining all steadfastness and patience
- joyously giving thanks to the Father
Ask God to encourage their hearts (Colossians 2:1-2, prayer implied):
- being knit together in love
- attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding
- resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself
- Ask God to make them stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. (Colossians 4:12-13)
- Ask God to make them increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people. (1 Thessalonians 3:12)
- Ask God to establish their hearts without blame in holiness at the return of Christ. (1 Thessalonians 3:13)
- Ask God to sanctify them entirely; and to preserve their spirits, souls, and bodies complete and without blame at the coming of Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23)
- Ask God to count them worthy of their calling. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
- Ask God to fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of the Lord Jesus might be glorified among them. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
- Ask God to comfort and strengthen their hearts in every good work and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:17)
- Ask God to direct their hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ. (2 Thessalonians 3:5)
- Ask God to grant them peace in every circumstance. (2 Thessalonians 3:16)
- Ask God that the fellowship of their faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in them for Christ’s sake. (Philemon 1:6)
The second largest category relates to the mission that God’s people are doing. In some cases Paul is asking for prayers for himself in this category; sometimes he is praying for others. Here is a list to help you pray for people (and for yourself!) in this category:
- Ask God to open a way for them—or yourself—to go and do ministry somewhere. (Romans 1:10-12; 15:32; 1 Thessalonians 3:10-11)
- Ask God to bless and make successful a particular area of service. (Romans 15:31)
- Ask God to give utterance in the opening of their mouths, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. (Ephesians 6:18-19)
- Ask God to allow Christ to be exalted in them whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:20)
- Ask God to open up a door for the word, so that they might speak about the mystery of Christ and to make it clear. (Colossians 4:3-4)
- Ask God to make his word spread rapidly so that God might be glorified. (2 Thessalonians 3:1)
A third category consists of prayers for deliverance from some sort of suffering, just as Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:13): “Deliver us from evil (or the Evil One).”
- Ask God to rescue someone from persecutors. (Romans 15:30-31)
- Ask God to aid someone suffering or being persecuted. (2 Corinthians 1:11)
- Ask God to deliver someone from prison (or to preserve them until their final future deliverance). (Philippians 1:19)
- Ask God to keep someone from shame, and that Christ might be exalted in them whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:20)
- Ask God to rescue them from perverse and evil people. (2 Thessalonians 3:2)
- Ask God to strengthen and protect them from the evil one. (2 Thessalonians 3:3, prayer implied)
- Ask God to work with kings and others in positions of authority so that believers may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
Finally, here is a list of a few other things that we can pray about that are found in the letters of Paul. The items in this list don’t easily fall into any of the above three categories.
- Ask God for people to come to salvation. (Romans 10:1; cf. 9:1-5)
- Ask God to work spiritually in a spouse or child, including moving them toward salvation. (1 Corinthians 7:14-16, prayer implied)
- Ask God to help you personally interpret a tongue you have spoken in a meeting. (1 Corinthians 14:13)
- Ask God to take care of the things that worry you. (Philippians 4:6)
My personal take-away from this time of study was that I needed to pray more for the first two categories listed above: 1) for the spiritual growth of my fellow believers—including such particulars as were listed above, and 2) for their boldness in proclaiming the word of God and its effects.
For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.