One of God’s amazing creations, foxglove, contains the potential for great healing as well the potential for sickness and death. Despite its great beauty, the plant is quite toxic. Yet the right amount of the plant can heal various illnesses; for example, the heart medicine digitalis is made from foxglove extracts.
A similar balance is operative in our prayer lives. While Christians generally recognize the need for regular prayer in order to draw closer to God, the way we practice that spiritual discipline may leave us so out of balance that we grow spiritually sick without realizing it.
Prayer can become unbalanced in a number of ways. When we look to Scripture, we find examples of prayer that encompass praise for who God is (Ps 103), thanksgiving for what God has done (Ps 135), confession for our sins (Dan 9:4-19), supplication for our own needs (Ps 109:26-29), and intercession for the needs of others (Luke 23:34). At different moments in our lives, we might gravitate more towards one form than another: praise may be the go-to prayer when experiencing the joy of a newborn child or the blessing of a spiritually growing church, while supplication may become our sole focus when we face illness or family strife. But in the long-term, prayers that fail to encompass all of these various aspects can result in a sort of spiritual toxicity. If our prayers focus solely on praise of God but disregard intercession, then we are not loving our neighbor enough to bring their concerns to God. If we focus on confessing our sins but fail to praise the God who forgives, then we can drown in our own despair. If we constantly intercede for others but neglect our own confession, then we may be avoiding our own issues or experiencing spiritual pride.
Another area of imbalance can occur when we ask for prayer requests, whether in church or another context. I ask for prayer requests at the beginning of the classes I teach, for example. Most often, I receive requests for various personal needs, whether healing for a loved one from illness, help with upcoming exams, or wisdom in resolving a difficult relationship. None of these requests are problematic in and of themselves — after all, James tells us to pray for those who are sick (5:14). But it is rare for me to hear a request for God’s intervention in other parts of the world, or for the growth of the church, or for strength and wisdom for our pastors.
This is all the more striking when we compare typical modern prayer requests with the way the apostle Paul prayed. Nearly all of his recorded intercessions focus on the spiritual growth of the church – prayers that the Corinthians will not do anything wrong (2 Cor 13:7), that God will strengthen the Ephesians with power through the Spirit (Eph 3:16), that God would give the Romans a spirit of unity (Rom 15:5-6), that God would fill the Romans with great joy and peace (Rom 15:13), for the Lord to make the Thessalonians’ love for one another increase (1 Thess 3:12), for the Lord to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2:16-17), for the Lord to give peace to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 3:16), and so on. When Paul offers praise and thanksgiving, he also focuses on spiritual matters, such as praising God for the faith of the churches to which he ministers.
Jesus’s instruction in the Lord’s prayer is strikingly similar. Of all the statements, only one (“give us this day our daily bread”) concerns our physical needs. The rest address spiritual concerns. Jesus instructs us to cry out for God’s kingdom to become a reality here on earth. How would our lives and the atmosphere of our churches be different if the majority of our prayer time focused not on personal needs, but on God’s bringing the kingdom to earth?
I confess that I, for one, do not spend enough time praying for the church, although I am trying to remedy that failure. It seems appropriate, then, to finish this post with a prayer for the church:
Lord God, we praise you for the great love you have shown to your people by sending your son, Jesus Christ, to redeem us from our sins. After you raised him from the dead you sent your Holy Spirit so that we might have resurrection power in our lives. We thank you for the preaching of the saints, who have taught us your Holy Scriptures and have shown us how to walk in holiness. Yet we confess that as the body of Christ, we have not loved you fully, nor have we shown love to one another as we should. Our own selfish desires consume and deceive us. We let petty rivalries separate us from one another — both within our local church and in the ways that we behave toward other churches in our community. Forgive us, we pray. Reveal to us, Lord, our spiritual pride and humble us so that we might be more willing to work with one another and serve your kingdom purposes. Help us to see those in our communities who are hurting, and release creative energies to provide solutions to their need. Encourage us, strengthen our faith, and help your church to become not just a light on a lampstand, but a blazing fire in the darkness, inviting others to join the warmth and life-giving power which only you provide. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.