Praying with a Broader Perspective

Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad is an autobiographical tale of Twain’s experiences aboard a five-month pleasure cruise to Europe, Africa, and the Bible Lands of the Middle East. As a modern Christian reader, it was surprising for me to see that a profit-driven cruise liner’s itinerary included nightly prayer meetings. So much has changed in the century and a half since that voyage! Not everyone onboard the ship identified as a Christian though. Twain noted, “There were those among the unregenerated who attributed the unceasing headwinds to our distressing choir music.” He went on to add the following:

There were even grumblers at the prayers. The executive officer said the Pilgrims [Twain’s collective term for the tour group – PWS] had no charity. “There they are, down there every night at eight bells, praying for fair winds – when they know as well as I do that this is the only ship going east this time of year, but there’s a thousand coming west – what’s a fair wind for us is a head-wind to them – the Almighty’s blowing a fair wind for a thousand vessels, and this tribe wants him to turn it clear around so as to accommodate one, – and a steamship at that! It ain’t good sense, it ain’t good reason, it ain’t good Christianity, it ain’t common human charity. Avast with such nonsense!” [1]
 
Though this anecdote like many in the book is meant to be comical, it contains a kernel of truth that I think is worthy of consideration. Have you ever stopped to think about what it would mean for your prayer to be answered before you offered it to God? Sometimes we too can be guilty of praying for things that might make our way easier while making the way of countless others harder. Have you ever prayed for fair weather for your picnic without thinking about what one less rainstorm would mean to the farmers upon whose crops your picnic depends, not to mention the flora and fauna? Have you ever prayed to get a job without thinking about all the applicants who would miss out because of your gain? Have you ever prayed for the life of someone needing a vital organ transplant without thinking about the tragedy that this would almost certainly require in the lives of others?

Let me pause here to temper what I’m saying a bit. I don’t believe this level of thought is a prerequisite to each prayer that we make. God teaches us and invites us to pray our hearts to Him. Peter says, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7). Paul adds, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Note the depth and breadth of these passages: “all your care” and “in everything… let your requests be made known.” In addition to these encouragements, we’re given a promise when we ask for something we shouldn’t: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).

So, if all of that is true, why bring this up at all? I believe that trying to pray with a broader perspective will have at least three benefits. One, it will help us to obey Paul’s command, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Two, we will likely find that our prayers will change as we consider needs beyond the ones that immediately touch us. Some time ago, when I prayed for a Christian brother who needed a transplant, I found myself praying also for the family on the other side of that transplant that would suffer loss if God chose for my brother to gain. Third, I think perspective will help us tremendously with a couple of statements made inside of those encouragements to pray above: “He may exalt you in due time” and “with thanksgiving.” If I pray with a broader perspective, I’ll already be on the pathway to understanding 1) why a prayer may not be answered according to my desires and 2) how there may be a reason to give thanks even when God’s answer is to my prayer is, “No.”

Please, don’t let any of this stop you from praying “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). However, try to train yourself to take a step back from your own prayer requests to consider the needs and interests of others. If our tailwinds are going to mean someone else’s headwinds, maybe it’s OK sometimes to let our journey be hindered and pray for them instead. 
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org
[1] Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (New York: Greystone Press, 1922), 24-25.

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