A Call for Pastors to Pray for Their People
If you’ve been called by God to be a pastor, then I’m sure you desire to pray for your people. Sadly, desire is never enough.
When our Lord asked his faithful inner circle of disciples “to remain here, and watch with me,” I’m sure they had a desire to faithfully watch and pray with the One they loved. Unfortunately, that desire was not enough. Instead, they became memorable illustrations of a painful truth every pastor has experienced when it comes to prayer: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). How many times have you made a fresh resolve to pray for your people only to find yourself fast asleep because your “eyes were heavy” (Matt. 26:43)?
The goal of this article is to fight back against our tired eyes with the prayer-invigorating truths of God’s Word. I’m hoping these meditations will cause your soul to rise up with the apostolic cry, “We will devote ourselves to prayer” (Acts 6:4a).
To that end, I offer six biblical truths that I hope will jolt us out of our prayerless slumber.
1. Not praying for your people is a sin.
Prayerlessness is sin. We need to be honest about this. A pastor who fails to pray for his people is as unbiblical as a pastor who refuses to preach God’s Word. One of the sweetest realities of being a Christian is that we’re now “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Despite “desires of the flesh” pulling us towards sin (Gal. 5:16), believers still have an unceasing desire to do what is right. Because God has written his law on our minds and in our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10), we therefore desire to love righteousness and hate wickedness (Psalm 45:7; Heb. 1:9). The Spirit never permits Christians to tolerate sin in their lives. Like the congregants they serve, pastors can never be happy tolerating prayerlessness in their lives because prayerlessness is sin.
The prophet Samuel made this abundantly clear when he promised the people of Israel that he’d pray for them saying, “far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you” (1 Sam. 12:23). Samuel recognized that a failure to pray for God’s people was a sin against God. Samuel was a leader among God’s people. How could he claim to care for them when he didn’t bring their needs before Jehovah-Jireh, the One who alone could care for those needs? And how could Samuel claim to lead God’s people if he didn’t lead them to seek the Lord in prayer? To leave God’s people un-prayed for is to leave them uncared for, unprovided for, and unled, “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). As pastors, we’re called to flee sin and to pursue righteousness. We must learn to flee the sin of prayerlessness and to put on the righteous and wonderful habit of praying for our people.
2. Praying for your people glorifies God.
One of my favorite verses on prayer is Psalm 50:15: “And call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
Every day of trouble is a day we have the opportunity and privilege of glorifying God. In comforting the sick, discipling new converts, and counseling difficult situations, we can sometimes feel like we’re being distracted from our true calling, but this is a mistake.
Each and every trouble that comes our way is an opportunity to honor God as we call upon him for help—and he does! When he answers our prayers and works in the lives of the people we’re praying for, he gets the glory. When he comforts the sick or fixes the logistical issues we’ve been having, he gets the glory because he did the work.
We should follow the advice of John Newton (1725–1807) in one of his hymns:
Come, my soul, thy suit prepare:
Jesus loves to answer prayer;
He himself has bid thee pray,
Therefore will not say thee nay;
Therefore will not say thee nay.
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much;
None can ever ask too much.
When we ask the Lord to work in the midst of our troubles, we give him the glory he deserves.
3. We are called to imitate leaders who pray for their people.
Hebrews 13:7 tells us to think about our church leaders: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” If you survey great leaders of the Christian church, one thing they have in common is they were committed to prayer. We see this in the life of the Apostle Paul who told the Colossians that he and his partners in the ministry hadn’t “ceased to pray for” them since the day they heard about them (Col. 1:9).
What an example of perseverance! Non-stop prayer since the first day he knew about the Colossian sheep. Consider that, brothers, and imitate this way of life. Consider also the example of Epaphras, “who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus,” and whom Paul tells us was “always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Col. 4:12). Remember the example of godly men like Paul and Epaphras, men of prayer.
4. Praying for your people reflects the priority of New Testament churches.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was an answer to prayer. The earliest Christian leaders, along with just over a 100 followers of Christ, were praying and waiting when God suddenly moved in power (Acts 1–2). The earliest Christians devoted themselves to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42), and as the church grew and the demands of leadership increased, church leaders realized they needed to reset their priorities (Acts 6). The neglect of some of the widows in the church had helped them realize they couldn’t do everything.
But what should be their focus? Should they focus on benevolence or administration? These were good and spiritual options (Rom. 12:6–8), but the leaders of the early church knew something was better. Under the leadership of the Holy Spirit they proclaimed,
It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:2–4)
Did you notice what made the apostles’ list of what to they had to do? The study and teaching of Word and prayer. The corporate church couldn’t leave the widows to starve, of course. But the leaders realized they would lose everything if they gave up on prayer. All the generosity required to care for the widows would have dried up if the leaders hadn’t continued to dip their buckets into the well of God’s mercy by praying for God’s people. If we want to have New Testament ministries, then we must understand and practice New Testament prayer.
5. Praying for God’s people will lead them to change.
As pastors, we long to see our people grow in Christ-likeness. We prepare sermons because we believe in the life-changing power of the Bible. We set an example for the flock because we know people follow their leaders.
But do we pray? To be clear, we need counseling, preaching, and training opportunities. But all of these are useless without the power of God unleashed through prayer. The Apostle Paul saw prayer as a primary means of promoting the sanctification of God’s people. This is why he prayed,
Asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience. (Col. 1:9–11)
Knowledge, wisdom, understanding, life change, fruit-bearing, strength, power, endurance, and patience—what more could you ask for! For the Apostle Paul, all of these came to God’s people by prayer. And again, in the book of Philippians, Paul prays,
That your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)
Love, knowledge, depth of insight, discernment, purity, blamelessness, the fruit of righteousness—to the praise and glory of God. Again, all of these blessings came through prayer. Do the congregations we serve manifest these characteristics? Perhaps they don’t because we “do not ask” (James 4:2). Oh Lord, move us to pray!
6. Prayer is how ordinary men do extraordinary things for God.
For years, the elders at my church have sought to be obedient to God’s call to pray for the sick in accordance with James 5:14. Each time we gather with one of God’s suffering saints to ask the Lord to heal them, I’m encouraged by a single verse in the book of James. James reminds us, “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years” (James 5:17). I’ve always felt that it’s a tender mercy of God to place this verse near the end of chapter 5.
Think about this. James has just told the sick to call the church elders to pray over a sick person in the hope they’ll be healed. He seems to think healing won’t come once in a blue moon, that it is something we should expect God to do in the ordinary life of the church. He writes, “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” What a promise! The elders are asking God to do a miracle. James knows how the average pastor is going to think: “Me? I’m just an ordinary man!” James anticipates this objection by concluding the Elijah story: “Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17).
James is saying, “Look, elders, you’re just like Elijah, the one God used to change the weather patterns for three and a half years. Surely God can use an average man like you to do extraordinary things.” What an encouragement! We don’t need to be extraordinary for God to do extraordinary things through our ministry. Instead, we should fully and joyfully embrace our ordinariness and fling ourselves onto the extraordinary promises of God.
Brothers, I hope these six reasons will shape your conscience and move your heart toward deeper passion and the resolve to pray. Give yourself to prayer for your people. Why not ask God to direct you to some fresh resolves for prayer right now? Let the fruit of obedience flow out of a mind that is transformed by God’s Word (Rom. 12:1-2). Prayer gives glory to God, follows the example of great men of the past, reflects the priority of the early Church, changes our people, and is used by God to allow ordinary men to do extraordinary things. May God help us to pray!
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Editor's note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Pray for the Flock: Ministering God's Grace through Intercession (Zondervan, 2015).