My late pastor used to frequently emphasize that we not let our praying fall into “Christian cliches,” but that we pray Scripturally. That doesn’t mean we used prayers or phrases in the Bible as magic words or a magical formula, but by seeing examples in the Bible of how and what to pray, we can know we’re praying in line with God’s will.
One night at the beginning of a prayer meeting, he mentioned noticing that there didn’t seem to be many instances in the Bible of Christians praying for unbelievers to become believers, though there were examples of their praying for a number of other things. This wasn’t his message for the night or anything he studied out: if he were preparing a sermon he would have developed the thought more fully before mentioning it. It was more just a thought that had occurred that day that he was throwing out there. Of course it’s certainly not wrong to pray for unbelievers. Paul said in Romans 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.” But my pastor encouraged us to think of Scriptural ways to pray for them. This is something I am going to be watching for the next time I read through the New Testament, but here are a few thoughts along this line.
1. We can pray for God to send someone to tell them of Jesus. In Matthew 9:37-38, Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” That was something I prayed for my mother often. She was not open to talking to me about her spiritual condition, we lived 1,000 miles apart, and she was not inclined to go to church, so I prayed God would send someone across her path, perhaps a coworker, who would be a good testimony to her. At her funeral, where my former pastor presented the gospel clearly, I heard a number of “Amens” behind me and was astonished at the number of people who evidently knew the Lord there. I don’t know exactly how they were able to share with my mom, but I was touched at how God had answered that frequent prayer.
2. We can pray for their hearts to be “good ground.” In what we call the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus talks about various people’s hearts as ground that the seed of the Word is dropped into. It doesn’t take root and grow in some because it’s snatched away, in others because their heart is stony, in others because thorns choke it out. But the one with “good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit.” Though we’re not specifically instructed to pray this way, I’ve prayed at times for hearts of lost loved ones to become good ground, for the stones to be removed, the bedrock underneath to be broken up, the thorns to be kept back, so that the seed of the Word can take root and bring forth fruit. I think God does that in some by bringing circumstances into their lives to soften them and by bringing them under the sound of the Word that they reject at first, but which gradually breaks down the stoniness. I think apologetics ministries are most helpful here: I’ve seen these types of ministries as well as creation-based ministries scorned a bit because they’re not the gospel. Most, however, include the gospel and I think they help make way for the gospel.
3. We can pray for God to draw them to Himself. John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
4. We can pray for the Word of God to have free course in their lives. 2 Thessalonians 3:1 says, “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you.” I love the term “free course” there – to me it conveys the idea of being unhindered.
I’ve also prayed that God would “open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). Though in that passage that’s not part of a prayer, it’s what God says He will do through Paul, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to ask God to do the same through others. I’ve also prayed that people would realize that whatever they’re trusting in is not dependable and will not satisfy in the long run, or that whatever is keeping them from salvation is not worth it: though I can’t think of an instance in the Bible where that kind of thing is recorded as a prayer, I don’t think those are unbiblical prayers: I think they’re in keeping with the tenor of Scripture.
What do you think? Are these valid ways of praying for unbelievers? Do you have Biblical ways you pray for them?
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.