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Beating the Prayer Bluff

Can you and I take a moment to get real honest?

I know this may come across as hypocritical since I am a Christian and a pastor and I am always sharing churchy exhortations online, but I want to be candid. Many times I have told someone that I would pray for them and I failed to do so. I bet you have done the same.

You have no doubt become the victim, or played the perpetrator, of the “prayer bluff.” Someone expresses their struggle with a circumstance or new issue peeks its head over the horizon, and our mind sends a message to our mouth: blurt out something about praying for them!

It all sounds genuine. But I fear, in my own life and in yours, that “I’ll be praying for you” has become nothing more than a religious platitude.

The Problem With Failing to Pray for Someone

I have felt a bit pessimistic about “I’ll be praying for you” for some time now, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered its heartlessness. It happened when I was reading Numbers (yes, really).

Throughout the book of Numbers, the Israelites are on their way to Edom under the guidance of God and Moses. They complain. A lot. They take up their complaints with both of these faithful leaders, demanding an answer for why they were escorted to this dreadful wilderness. The food (when they manage to find some) is bland, and there’s no water.

God reacted to their ungratefulness and slander with judgment, sending fiery serpents among them. They came to their senses in repentance, or perhaps they feared the prospect of death. Regardless, here’s what happens next:

And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. — Numbers 21:7

Here’s the question that came to my mind as I read that: What if he hadn’t? What if Moses heard these pleas from the people and said, “Okay, I’ll pray for you,” then didn’t, and just went about his business? Wouldn’t we call Moses unloving? Lazy? Cruel?

Last I checked, none of us are asking others to pray for our deliverance from fiery serpents. But what does it say of us when we promise our neighbor to come before the Lord in prayer, forsaking our own selves for their sake, only to not follow through? Is this what it means to love one’s neighbor?

We can beat the prayer bluff. There are three shifts we can make when it comes to being constant in prayer for those around us.

#1 – Believe your prayers matter to God

We would pray more if we believed our prayers mattered. At times, our confession of God’s sovereignty can mess with our thoughts on human responsibility. The truth is, a sovereign God doesn’t undermine the need for prayer; it intensifies it.

Only a sovereign God could do something with the prayers we offer Him. This should compel us all the more to pray, especially for those in need.

What’s amazing about Moses’s decision to truly pray for the Israelites is that it made a difference on their behalf:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. — Numbers 21:8-9

This does not mean that every time we make our requests known to God that it is bound to happen the way we expect it to. For example, God may not end up bringing healing to a physical sickness. Yet in our very act of earnest prayer, our faith is strengthened. Our hope in Christ’s return is renewed. Our love for another is expressed.

For at least those reasons, our prayers always matter, regardless of the outcome. When we begin to truly believe that our prayers mean something, we will begin to take the weight of “I’ll be praying for you” more seriously.

#2 – Pray in the moment

I know how convenient and tidy it is to notify someone you will be in prayer for them and be able to walk away. Instead of getting our hands dirty in prayer, we often go for the hand sanitizer (“I’ll pray for you”) and call it a day. But the road to Christlikeness is not spotless or expedient. Neither are relationships with one another, whether spouse, friend, or stranger. Rather than offering what is often a trite, meaningless response to one in need, what if we began to make a shift to, “Can I pray for you right now?

I’ve heard many stories of people approached with this simple question who were brought to tears that someone would actually do this for them, in the moment. I have been a part of it myself, on both the giving and receiving ends. When I see with my own eyes that someone is no longer bluffing, but is actually laying their cards down to pray for me, I feel loved. I feel safe. I feel God’s comfort. You don’t have to offer a professional prayer with fancy words and Scripture meditations; only offer an authentic, heart-felt cry to God. It does wonders for them, and for you.

#3 – Make a list, then follow up

There are some who are tried and true people of prayer. They know their prayers matter, and they take initiative in praying in the moment with others. The rest of us need a strategy. Perhaps a final area we can continue to grow in is following up with those whom we have prayed for. It’s as simple as making a list. Maybe it’s that I’m a one-thing-at-a-time kind of guy, but I cannot bring myself to remember to pray for the seventeen people I know need it. I do better with reminders in front of me that are tangible.

There are many ways you can do this. Next time you go around the circle in small group with prayer requests, take time to write names and requests. Refer to this list throughout the week. Simple. For the more tech-inclined, put names or requests into an app or reminders list on your phone, even prompting yourself by using notifications. Discipline yourself to not take prayer for others with a grain of salt. And, most importantly, pray for them.

Take it a step further and reach out to those people after some time has passed to follow up. One of the most joyful feelings as a human is to be reminded that we have not been forgotten.

I’m glad Moses prayed for the Israelites that hot day in the wilderness. I’m also thankful when people pull me aside to offer words of life to me when I feel like I’m traversing my own wilderness. Let’s not think of Paul’s recommendation to “be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12) as a dated, unrealistic expectation.

It’s simple: prayer matters, and so do people.


Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University, and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.