Chapter 2

Loving Your Neighbor through Prayer

two

Loving Your Neighbor through Prayer

Recently, a neighbor across the street from our home moved away. Cari and I began to pray for the next neighbors who would arrive. Once they moved in, we prayed for opportunities to share God’s love with them. A couple of months later my new neighbor Tom and I were talking in the front yard when he mentioned that he was painting murals in his children’s rooms. He told me he had some community service hours to complete, and asked if there was any work he could do for our church. Not long afterward, we would be working together designing a mural depicting children running into Jesus’s open arms. While Tom painted the mural at the church, we had several candid conversations about life and faith, and I had the opportunity to share from my heart about the difference a relationship with Jesus had made in my life and the lives of those I love.

When we pray for others, God invites us on an adventure into the wonder of what He alone can do. He “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (ephesians 3:20) and has infinitely creative ways of moving in the hearts of those we long to reach. We truly love our neighbors when we pray for them, because through our prayers we welcome God’s loving presence to move in fresh and vital ways in their lives.

God works strategically through our prayers to open doors in others’ hearts for the good news of Jesus. You see this throughout the life of the apostle Paul, the most effective Christian missionary in history. Paul and his companions were at “a place of prayer” in Philippi when they encountered Lydia. “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message,” and “she and the members of her household were baptized” (acts 16:13–15).

Paul and Timothy told the Christians in Colosse, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ” (colossians 4:2–3, italics added). They also told the believers in Thessalonica: “Pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly” (2 thessalonians 3:1, italics added).

And in a revealing way, Paul elsewhere instructed Timothy about what our prayers for others mean to God, who places a high priority on our need to pray for their salvation: “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. . . . This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (1 timothy 2:1,3–4 nlt, italics added). God loves it when we pray for others to turn to Christ for forgiveness.

Scripture makes clear that we have a God-given responsibility to love others with our prayers. We can learn from the prophet Samuel’s example. He told the entire nation of Israel, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (1 samuel 12:23).

Now we’ll take a look at several Scripture-based ways to reach out to others through our prayers, in the hope that they will embrace the good news and receive Jesus as their Savior. First we’ll examine biblical examples of what to pray, then we’ll look at a prayerful way to gently share our faith and how to persevere in prayer. May God deeply bless you—and especially those you long to see come to Him—as you pray and go!

“Please Draw Him Near!”

Jesus said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of. . . the Spirit” (john 3:5). It is through the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that we receive the Lord as our Savior and are born again. Before the Holy Spirit can live in us as followers of Jesus, He must convict us of our sinfulness and our desperate need to receive God’s mercy. When we come to Jesus for salvation, it is because the Holy Spirit has made us aware of “the privilege of repenting” of our sins and “receiving eternal life” (acts 11:18, nlt). Scripture tells us, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 corinthians 12:3).

Jesus also made clear to His followers that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (john 6:44). So we pray strategically when we ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to draw others near. When we have tried and tried to persuade someone we care about to become a Christian and our words seem to have little effect, how encouraging it is to know that through God’s power and kindness we can still reach them through our prayers! Just as the earliest believers “all joined together constantly in prayer” before the Holy Spirit moved in many hearts on the day of Pentecost (acts 1:14), our prayers for God to draw others near can have a powerful impact in their lives.

Jack was a plumber who worked on the construction of our church building project several years ago. He said some of the “choicest” words ever uttered in the building when a city inspector required him to relocate a drain in a concrete floor—earning him a prominent spot on my daily prayer list. When Jack learned I was praying for him, he sometimes would ask me to pray for friends who were sick or in the hospital. I continued to pray daily for seven years for God to draw Jack near and save him.

One Saturday I was out of town at a hotel having a morning devotional time when I was convicted about a need for more baptisms at our church, and I began to pray. It was a simple and direct cry from the heart: “Please, Lord, just give us one!”

At 1:17 that afternoon my cell phone rang. It was Jack. “James, we need to talk,” he said with a serious tone to his voice. “I’ve just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I’m not ready.” We agreed to meet after his doctor’s appointment the following Wednesday, and he consented to my asking others to pray for him. At the prayer meeting at our church that Sunday evening we prayed for Jack’s healing and asked for God’s Spirit to make him sensitive to his need for salvation.

The following Wednesday afternoon, after a heartfelt conversation, Jack knelt in our prayer room at the church and received Jesus as his Lord and Savior. When he was baptized the following Sunday, I was able to share with the congregation the ways that God had moved in answer to all of our fervent prayers.

One of the most compelling things about prayer is how it emphasizes God’s ability to make things happen instead of our own. When we humbly admit that we can’t force others to come to Him through our own strength or cleverness, we open the door for God to accomplish what we could never do. As Jim Cymbala observed, “God is attracted to weakness. He can’t resist those who humbly and honestly admit how desperately they need Him. Our weakness . . . makes room for His power.” That’s why Paul reminded the church in Corinth that his message and preaching “were not with wise and persuasive words . . . so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 corinthians 2:4–5). When we pray for God’s Spirit to draw others near we invite His power, and He is able to overcome odds that seem insurmountable to us. He is “the One who breaks open the way” (micah 2:13).

Here’s an example of what a prayer for God to draw someone near might look like:

Lord Jesus, You said that “no one” can come to You “unless the Father” who sent You “draws them.” I praise You because of what You did for me at the cross, and because of Your Spirit! Thank You that even I can “have access to the Father” through You! Father, please send the Holy Spirit to draw ____________________ (name) near! You can move in their mind and heart in ways I could never imagine, and I pray that You will! Holy Spirit, please touch ____________________ (name) so that they will to be open to Your love and truth unlike ever before. Lord Jesus, I pray that ____________________ will repent of their sins and “turn to” You, so that their “sins may be wiped away” (acts 3:19 nlt). I know that nothing “is too hard” for you. I pray ____________________ will receive You today!

“Open Her Eyes, Father!”

At the beginning of his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul tells the believers there how he is praying for them: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people” (ephesians 1:18). The heart, from a biblical perspective, is the center of our being, instrumental in all of our decisions and actions. God’s Word tells us that “the human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked” (jeremiah 17:9 nlt). Jesus said that “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder,  adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (mark 7:21–22).

While Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus was for those who already believed in Jesus, it also gives us vital insight about how to pray for those who have yet to come to Him. Scripture tells us that our adversary, the devil, “has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 corinthians 4:4). So we pray for God to open the eyes of those we are trying to reach with His love, asking that their “hearts will be flooded with light” (ephesians 1:18 nlt). We pray that they may see who Jesus is in a way they never have before and respond to Him personally.

I saw my mother pray effectively this way for a friend who had been living in the kind of spiritual darkness Paul talks about. Linda had been one of my mother’s best friends for years. They had sung together in a community chorus, and Linda was the music teacher at my elementary school. When I was a little boy our families spent time together in each others’ homes.

When I was a little older, Mom asked me to pray for God’s light to shine into Linda’s heart so that she would come to know Jesus as her Savior. “I’ve been praying for her for a long time,” she said. She told me that Linda’s parents had been involved in occult practices when she was a child, and that this had an influence on the way Linda thought about God. Whenever she talked to Linda from her heart about matters of faith, she seemed to run into a wall.

My mother’s faithful prayers for Linda underscored the biblical truth that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (ephesians 6:12). Prayer is a vital and powerful weapon in that struggle, one that through God’s mercy has “divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 corinthians 10:4) and let His light shine in.

I was still in sixth grade when Linda responded to one of my mother’s invitations to attend our church. Soon afterwards she received Jesus there. A little while later her husband believed, and her daughters and sons as well. In years to follow Linda would become a faithful Christian and teacher in the same church, and God used her to deeply influence many others. My mother had no way of knowing it at the time, but her loving prayers for God to open Linda’s eyes would have a powerful, exponential effect that would ripple through generations.

The Bible tells us that God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (colossians 1:13). When we fervently pray for His light to shine in others’ hearts, we join in His search and rescue mission. Our prayers send a searchlight into the darkness that holds them in its grip so that they may see the gospel in a fresh new way, take it to heart, and God may “grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 timothy 2:25).

When Jesus first called Saul (Paul) he told him, “I am sending you . . . to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (acts 26:17–18, emphasis added). We’ve already seen how prayer mattered to Paul on his mission into a world lost in darkness. Following his example, here’s a model of a prayer for God to open others’ eyes:

Let your light shine in ____________________’s (name) heart, God. Lord Jesus, you came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind” (luke 4:18). Open their eyes, Lord! “Send out your light and your truth. Let them guide” ____________________ (name). Lead them to you, so that they may take to heart the wonder and beauty of all that you are. Remove any obstacles that hold them back, Lord, so that the they can say, “you have freed me from my chains” (psalm 116:16). Save ____________________ (name) and set them free, Lord! Turn them “from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith” (acts 26:18). Please bring them out of “the dominion of darkness” and into Your kingdom (colossians 1:13), so that they may one day stand in the city where Your glory “gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (revelation 21:23), and praise You forever and ever!

“Send a Friend, Lord”

Jesus’s instructions to “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (luke 10:2) emphasize two things. First Jesus tells His disciples to pray (“ask”), and then He tells them what to pray for (that workers will be sent).

There’s an urgency about His words. Listeners in Israel’s first-century agrarian culture understood how life depended on the harvest. There’s only so much time to bring in a plentiful harvest, and if workers are scarce, something of great value will be lost. Jesus’s instructions point us to a basic and indispensable truth: there’s a direct connection between asking and more help being sent.

God wouldn’t tell us to ask for something that He isn’t willing to give. God wants to send send workers,
and our asking for them is an important part of His plan to reach others with the good news. When we pray for God to send friends into the lives of those we love, we are praying a prayer God loves to answer!

The early church understood this vital connection between our prayers and sending others to share the good news. The first believers were “worshiping the Lord and fasting” when the Holy Spirit instructed them to “set apart for me Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the work to which I have called them.” Then they “fasted and prayed” and “placed their hands on them” and prayed again, and “sent them off” (see acts 13:2–3). The first missionaries were sent because the church was listening to God’s instructions, given to them as they prayed. Praying for God to send others isn’t a way of evading the responsibility of sharing the gospel ourselves; it’s simply a way of maximizing God’s infinite resources and recognizing that He has ways to reach people that we’ve never thought of.

My wife and I learned the power of asking God to send other believers into the lives of those we love when our son was in rehab for heroin addiction. Even though he had grown up in church and Sunday school, after he left home and addiction took hold, it was as if he was unable to hear us when we tried to encourage him to turn to God. Try as we may, sometimes those we love need to hear the same truth in fresh ways from others so they can discover it for themselves. We began to pray that God would send a believing friend into his life who would be an example to him in faith and life. God answered our prayer in the person of Joel, a young man who had once struggled in the same way but was now blessed with a successful career and beautiful family. Joel and his wife took a special interest in our son, welcoming him into their home and their lives as if he were their own. As they shared their faith with him in practical and loving ways, our son discovered his new identity in Christ and was set free to live.

Today our son serves others who struggle in the ways he once did. He’s faithfully involved in a recovery ministry in a church in the same city where he once abused drugs. God is now using him to help mend broken lives in a beautiful way. The difference Jesus has made in his life serves as a continual reminder to us of God’s mercy in answer to our simple prayer to “send a friend.” Here’s a prayer for that to happen in the life of someone you love:

Father, I pray that You will send someone to ____________________ (name). Send a friend into their life who will share the good news about Jesus in a way that they will genuinely hear, so they may take it to heart with deep conviction. Please put your people in their path, Lord. Let them notice ____________________, and have compassion for them. Send those who will love him/her “so much” that they will be “delighted” to share “not only the gospel,” but their “lives as well” (1 thessalonians 2:8). You know exactly what it will take to reach ____________________ (name), Lord. Nothing is too hard for You! (jeremiah 32:27). Please, send a friend to share the good news with ____________________ (name), so that they may believe the truth, call on Your name, and be saved! (romans 10:13).

“How Can I Pray for You Today?”

People are often reluctant to open their hearts about matters of faith with someone they’ve never met, but they are sometimes open to prayer. Right after Paul instructed the Christians in Colosse to “devote” themselves to prayer, he told them, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (colossians 4:5–6, italics added). At the church I serve (Peace Church in Durham, North Carolina) we encourage our members to “make the most of every opportunity” and have grace-filled conversations with others by asking a simple question: “Is there anything I can pray for you about today?” We’ve found that people we’ve never met previously will frequently open up about personal needs in their lives, and this often becomes a springboard for future conversations about our faith. We’ve also been surprised that apart from the occasional unknowing shrug or “Not really,” we’ve never had a hostile response to the question. Instead, people are often visibly touched that someone cares enough about them to ask.

We encourage our members to ask the question in gentle and natural ways. For example, if someone is out to eat and their meal has just been brought to the table, they might casually tell their server, “We’re about to thank God for our food. Is there anything we can pray for you about?” They’ll listen carefully to their response, and then pray after the server has left the table. We encourage them to ask quietly and with a humble spirit, so as not to call attention to themselves and to avoid the appearance of practicing “righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” (matthew 6:1). We also remind our people to tip generously after the meal—even if the service could have been better—as a way of representing God’s undeserved love and grace.

If you’re not used to asking others if there’s anything you can pray for them about, you may feel a little nervous the first time you do it. This was the case for Bob and Pam, a couple who were new to our church. One Sunday I challenged the congregation to take a step of faith and ask others in the community for prayer needs, and Bob and Pam decided to give it a try. They were out for dinner that evening when they said to their server, “We’re on the way to a prayer meeting tonight at our church. Is there anything you would like us to pray about for you when we’re there?” The young woman was visibly moved by their interest in her. “You know,” she responded thoughtfully, “I’ve never been to church in my life. My family never went, but I had a grandmother who did.” In the ensuing conversation she wanted to know more about Bob and Pam’s church, and about their faith. Bob told me later, “It was one of those opportunities where you sensed that God was at work in a special way. That night I went to bed thinking about the verse, “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 peter 3:15).

All around us are people who need to hear the good news about Jesus and come to Him for salvation. He told us, “Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (john 4:35). By their genuine desire to help others through their prayers, God gently prepared a way for Bob and Pam to have future conversations with their new friend. “The next time we see her,” Bob said, “I’m going to ask her about what we prayed for, talk to her about Jesus, and invite her to church.”

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