Probably like you, I get a number of email prayer requests. Some requests are about people I know, and some are about people I’ve never heard of and will probably never hear about again, much less meet. Even if the prayer request is from someone I’m familiar with, often the prayer need itself is about a person or a situation that’s very foreign to me.
How should I approach this?
One way is to take it upon myself to pray consistently and without fail for every prayer request I come across, whether I know the person or not, whether the request is large or small, and whether the request is permanent or short-lived. I could write down every request in my prayer-book or print out every email and put it in my prayer-binder. I honestly believe this would be a great service, and one that would reap fruit in eternity. But while I’m not against this approach, it does seem unrealistic. With the bounding leaps of technological advancement comes the ability to know about anything and everything going on anywhere and everywhere in the world. You can check your In-Box one time and get a group email telling you about the state of a persecuted house-church in China, an institutional email telling you about the birth complications of the sister of the wife of the Human Resources director, a personal email from a friend asking you to pray for strength in fighting discouragement, and a church email documenting fifty prayer requests for people in the church body broken down in categories of leadership, missions, evangelism, ministry needs, health, employment, and pregnancies. That’s not an exaggeration. And all of these are significant requests. So must they all be on your daily or weekly or monthly or categorical (or however you do it) prayer list?
I don’t necessarily think so. The reason I’m saying this is not to deempphasize interceding for people you don’t know or praying for situations that are far away from your sphere of life. I think that’s a wonderful thing to do. If some of you pray that much and that consistently for every prayer request you come across, please don’t take this as a discouragement to your labor. Keep doing it. Great is your reward in heaven. But I think that if I tried to pray consistently for every single prayer request I’ve heard about in the past six months, I would have to be unfaithful in a number of other areas of life, including prayer — prayer for the people who are closest to me or whose spiritual lives I am somehow more responsible for than others or who have asked for my support in prayer or whom I have committed to pray for or who have greater and more immediate needs than all the other more distant requests that I glance at on any given day.
So why am I saying this, if not to deemphasize this type of prayer? I’m simply saying it to try to free some of you who (like me) might sometimes feel immediately guilty when you see a prayer request in your In-Box or in your mailbox or in a newsletter or crossing your mind. Just because you don’t have a photographic memory and an infinite ability to recall prayer requests and a perfect filing system which has no cracks through which a forgettable prayer request could slip doesn’t mean that you can’t be faithful in prayer. You can be, as God gives His help.
So this is basically what I do when I receive an email prayer request about something fairly distant and someone I don’t really know: First, I read the email. Then, I pause briefly and try to let the reality of the situation settle in so that I have at least a small sense of weeping with those who weep or rejoicing with those who rejoice (and so that my prayers are not dull and lifeless but as heartfelt and passionate as I can make them with the help of God’s Spirit). Then I pray for the person and the situation as I sit in front of my computer. At that point, I normally delete the email. If I sense more of a burden to remember the request, I’ll leave it in my In-Box or farm it out to its appropriate folder and pray over it occasionally until I feel like deleting it. If it really strikes a chord, I might print it and put it in my prayer-binder (a slowly-developing system that I started a few months ago). But if I’ve deleted it, I simply entrust my memory of it to the Lord. If He brings it to mind throughout the course of the next few days or weeks or months, I try to pray for it then and there without necessarily feeling guilty for not having prayed about it relentlessly.
As I write this, memories come flooding to mind. Distant memories of people I’ve never met who prayed for my brother when he had his brain tumor in 2000. Recent memories of friends’ friends who are praying for Judah and our adoption. Biblical memories of Paul praying for the Colossians whom he had never met. These intercessory servants were burdened to pray for me and for people close to me (or for small churches 2,000 years ago), even though they had no idea who we were and probably had many other things to pray about. I am eternally grateful to the Lord that they prayed, and that He answered their prayers.
Nevertheless, I think that we should trust the Lord to show us who and what He wants us to pray for when it comes to the thousands of distant prayer needs that flood our lives each month. You may not be able to pray constantly for everything and everyone you ever hear about, but don’t let this discourage you from praying constantly. Sometimes by trying to pray for everything, I have failed to pray for the most basic prayer needs that God has put before me.
Obviously this is an opinion post and a thinking-out-loud post, not a this-is-what-the-Bible-says post. I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts, about this or related issues.