In Defense of Praying for Aunt Sally's Big Toe

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"Pray for the dead bird on the sidewalk!"

The six-year-old's words rushed through the church prayer meeting leaving an uneasy silence behind. Our pastor had invited requests, and one little boy--the newly-attending grandson of a church member--was endearingly eager. But his request? Not even just a bird. A dead bird.

Were we really supposed to pray for a dead bird?

Anyone who has participated in a time of corporate prayer probably has a similar awkward prayer request story he could tell. Even more common are requests about the physical illnesses and material needs--some critical, some relatively minor--of people only loosely related to the church.

And in conservative, Reformed circles we can sometimes treat these petitions dismissively, or even critically. For example, a recent book on prayer jibes at the prayer time in which "a couple of people will inform us of their next-door neighbour's friend's aunt who has just got bad news" and make requests for "someone's next-door neighbour's grandmother who may or may not be a Christian and has been diagnosed with cancer." An article last year similarly poked fun at a prayer meeting where a member might say, "my aunt is going in to hospital for an ingrown toenail," and then ask for prayer on her behalf.

I affirm the basic point of these critiques: we need to pray together with greater concentration on God's grand, redemptive purposes. Jesus himself taught us to pray "thy kingdom come" before "give us this day." And the Scripture establishes prayer as a spiritual weapon and a spiritual tool; it is therefore rightly applied first to spiritual concerns.

I also agree that corporate prayer entails corporate responsibilities. Praying together "in Jesus's name" is no magic abracadabra but is an intentional submission of all our wills to his. When we pray together as the church, we should regularly and deliberately pray for the God-directed mission of the church: the advance of the kingdom, the strengthening of the body, and the exaltation of Christ.

But it is no mark of holiness to disparage the small and sometimes immature requests of those who are also in the body. As people who are being built up together into Christ who is the head, we have good reasons--kingdom reasons!--to sometimes pray together for dead birds and ill aunts and next-door neighbors who have had bad news.

First, such requests remind all of us that we are weak and dependent on the Lord for everything. Nineteenth century theologian Charles Hodge pointed to his childhood prayers for insignificant things as evidence of a vibrant faith:

As far back as I can remember I had the habit of thanking God for everything that I received and asking him for everything I wanted. If I lost a book, or any of my playthings, I prayed that I might find it. I prayed walking along the streets, in school and out of school, whether playing or studying . . . . It seemed natural. I thought of God as an everywhere-present Being, full of kindness and love, who would not be offended if children talked to him.1

As we mature in the faith, we will include larger concerns in our prayers, but we should never think we are above praying for smaller ones. It is pride to think we do not need God at every moment. But it is humility, Peter tells us, to "[cast] all your anxieties on him because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:6-7). Praying together for seemingly minor requests is a valuable public admission of our complete dependence on God.

Too, we pray together as an act of love for one another. As Matthew Henry writes about the members of the body described in 1 Corinthians 12, "Christian sympathy is a great branch of Christian duty. We should be so far from slighting our brethren's sufferings that we should suffer with them." In love, we affirm that the weaker members are indispensable (v. 22). In love, we take up their concerns in prayer: we bear their burdens, we count their needs just as important as our own, and we lend them a hand to cast those things on the Lord.

Finally, by our prayers for seemingly small requests, we have an opportunity to turn one another's eyes toward the spiritual purposes of temporal need. Just as Jesus concerned himself with both healed legs and forgiven souls, just as he handed out loaves of bread and gave himself as the bread of life, we pray for the material concerns of our brothers and sisters so that they might learn to seek the fulfillment of their spiritual needs also.

In the case of the little boy and the dead bird, one of the church members eventually prayed, asking the Lord who numbers hairs and watches sparrows to comfort the boy and assure him of his loving sovereignty. A small pile of feathers became an occasion for one generation to tell the next of the mighty acts of God.  

Likewise, a neighbor's sickness is an opportunity to pray for both bodily healing and spiritual salvation. A friend's bad news is a chance to humbly thank the God who does all things wisely and well.  Even an aunt's ingrown toenail allows us to ask God for grace in trials and patience in suffering--for his strength made perfect in weakness. We encourage and train one another in the life of faith as we welcome small requests and then pray thoughtfully for God's purposes to be accomplished.

Brothers and sisters, let us count it a privilege to pray together for lowly things, and may God be exalted as we do.

 

1 Hoffecker, W. Andrew. Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011). 37.

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Megan Hill is a PCA pastor's wife and writer living in Massachusetts. She is the author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Crossway, 2016).
Posted April 15, 2016 @ 8:12 AM by Megan Hill
TOPICS: Prayer


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