Hi, friends. Have you ever heard the phrase “I’ll pray for you?” Did it strike you as sweet or condescending? Trust me, the same words can convey totally different messages. This post explores how and why those words can help or harm.
Saying It vs. Thinking It
The phrase “I’ll pray for you” can encourage and give hope to our loved ones; we’re conveying that we sympathize with their struggles and are taking those concerns to the Creator. First thing’s first–we should ask rather than tell–“Can I pray for you?” Usually, believers and non-hostile non-believers will appreciate the offer or at least not mind it, but you never know. After all, my pastor told me that some people have said “no” when she asked.
We should pray for people without mentioning it to them if they are hostile non-believers who will interpret the phrase negatively. If we know that a person strongly disdains religion, prayer, etc. and we mention it to them, it could do more harm than good, provoking an argument rather than expressing love. If we truly believe in the power of prayer, we know that telling someone we’re praying for them isn’t necessary for God to hear us.
Being Genuine vs. Being Self-Righteous
People who say “I’ll pray for you” when a loved one is suffering or hoping for something are generally being sincere. “I’ll pray for you” can be weaponized; when we use the phrase as a condescending, contemptuous judgement, we pervert its meaning to “I’m better than you.” This prayer perversion usually occurs in arguments, such as in debates between Christians and non-believers. That’s especially cringy because talking down to a non-believer is both sinful and unproductive.
While I was editing this post last week, I saw a picture on Facebook that read, “Be kind to unkind people. They need it the most.” That’s a Godly sentiment! …But the caption read, “I’ll pray. She needs it.” Ah, the good ol’ humble-brag we revert to so easily. Perhaps God was providing me a segue into this verse of scripture–
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 5:5-6, NIV)
The spirit of this scripture is applicable to this issue. Here, Jesus essentially says that we should pray with meek sincerity–not because we want people to perceive us as holy but because we genuinely “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (from the Beatitudes). In the same way, we should use the phrase “I’ll pray for you” (or, preferrably, “Can I pray for you?”) with humble discretion.
Thanks for reading! Have you heard this phrase misappropriated? Reminds me of the passive-aggressive Southern phrase “Bless your heart.”