In my last post, I argued that pastors must pray for themselves in order to maintain a vibrant communion with God and to obtain spiritual power for ministry. But the praying pastor must also pray for the people of his church. This is part of the essential call on the life of a minister—to intercede for the people God has called him to shepherd. This is what we see as the pattern presented over and over again in the Scriptures. Again, in Acts 6, the apostles say they cannot serve the widows. Why did they say this? Were they lazy? Did they deem the task as unimportant? Was it beneath them as apostles to serve like this? The answer to all these questions is ‘No.’ In fact, the issue was bigger than just meals; so important that created the position of deacon to handle it (6:3). No, the issue wasn’t unimportant, but it wasn’t their calling to serve in that way. Instead they said, “we must devote ourselves to the ministry of the word and prayer” (6:4). Prayer was integral to their ministry, and should be to ours as well.
Learning to Pray like Jesus
Surely, they learned about the importance of prayer from Jesus himself. In addition to all the prayer he did on his own, do you remember what Jesus told Peter as he was headed for the cross? “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32, emphasis added). It was Satan’s intention to cause Peter to reject Christ, forever ending his future as an apostle of the church. But Jesus said that would not happen because he had prayed for Peter. Do you feel the weight of what Jesus is saying? Satan was coming hard after Peter; he wanted him to fall forever. Much like the seed that fell whose life was choked out by suffering and persecution, Peter might have began strong but then had his faith scorched to nothing by the Enemy’s attack (Matt 13:3-9, 21). But Jesus wouldn’t allow this. He had plans for Peter and prayed on his behalf so that he wouldn’t fall under the strain of Satan’s attack. The significance of this was not lost on the apostles.
Learning to Pray like Paul
Think about Paul’s example as well. Have you ever noticed how often Paul talks about praying for other Christians? Specifically, Christians he has ministered to? He writes things like: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you” (Col 1:3); “we have not ceased to pray for you” (Col 1:9); “we always pray for you” (2 Thess 1:11); “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers” (Phlm 1:4); and “I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day” (2 Tim 1:3). As we consider what Paul says, we should be struck first by the fact that he was constantly in prayer for God’s people! But then when we look more closely, we should see that such a prayer life is not easy. He makes this explicit in Romans 15:30 where he says, “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf.” Paul says he strives in prayer. The word ‘strive’ is the same word is other places translated as agony. This was intense prayer! But it was the routine for Paul as he thought about all of the Christians he had met, all of the churches he had started, and all of the potential for sin to derail them in their lives as Christ’s disciples.
Learning to Pray for the Church
Do we have such love for God’s people? Do we strive over them in prayer? If not, getting there first begins by seeing the people in our church as God himself sees them. Paul told the Ephesian elders to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Remember that the Christians in your church are Christians because Christ purchased them with his own blood. He died for them. He willingly gave up the glory of heaven to take on flesh, walked head long into rejection and suffering at the hand of his people, and endured the shame and spiritual agony of the cross for people we shepherd week after week (Phil 2:5-8). Aside from Christ himself, what could be of more value than them? Remembering this, meditating on it, will cause us to want to pray more for God’s people.
Secondly, if we want cultivate a deeper sense love for God’s people that will lead to urgency for them in prayer, we should focus on God’s grace in their lives. This is something I’ve learned from listening to C.J. Mahaney. It’s far too easy to only think of the bad we see in them. Why aren’t they more mature? Why don’t they love me and my family more? Why can’t they support the ministries of the church more faithfully? If these are the only kinds of things we focus on, our hearts will grow cold for them. But Paul presents a better model for us. Though he is frustrated by their forgetfulness to remember the spiritual truth he taught them and is angered by the sinful lifestyles that resulted from that forgetfulness, he can still see God’s work in their life. Read 1 Corinthians 1:10-16:24, then go back and read the opening of the letter in 1:1-9. It’s amazing! Despite the rampant sin and spiritual immaturity of the Corinthians Paul can still write, “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints . . . . I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,” (1:2, 4). Paul sets an example for us as he looks at the Corinthians with divine perspective. He chooses to see both the sin that is there as well as the grace that is there. Paul looks at what God has done for them in Christ and he desires to continue to accomplish in their lives. Mahaney wisely comments:
When you think of this church, of individuals, do you think of grace in their lives? When you look on another person, are you more aware of evidences of grace or of errors in need of correction? . . . . Paul looks at the Corinthian church as it is in Christ, before he looks at anything else that is true of it. Too many members think it is their job to criticize the church. But God is at work here—are you aware of that? You’ll never be able to understand areas in need of adjustment if you don’t see evidences of grace. We are already experts at critique. We need to become experts at seeing evidences of grace. (sermon, “The Transforming Effects of Divine Perspective”)
Such a perspective will cause us to give thanks to God for even the more immature of our people and drive us to passionately lift them before God’s throne.