The Uses & Misuses of “I’ll Pray for You”

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

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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

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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.”

24 comments

  1. I believe prayer is an individual choice, so praying “for” someone strikes me as a bit condescending, even when it’s meant well. Likewise a comparison between Christians and “non-believers”, as there are many people who are believers in God and religion but just happen to believe something different, including different versions of Christianity.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Perhaps it is different with Judaism, but in Christianity, requesting prayer and offering prayer is commonplace. Ex: “Y’all stop and say a prayer for my grandma who fell and broke her hip last night.” Your point about my terminology is noted. I get used to writing from a Christian perspective, but it is true that members of other religions pray as well. I’m glad for other perspectives to remind me of things I may overlook.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think because we/Christians or at least I really covet as many prayers as I can get, others want the same. I have had some tell me, no when asked. And a good friend of mine, who is an atheist, was offended at how I sign my email with love and prayers. I did it out of habit. To say the least, I sign only with love, now. But I haven’t quit praying. She just doesn’t know that.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I like what believe4147 said about “coveting” prayers. I have seen the power of prayer and been the recipient of the power of prayer and so when a fellow Christian tells me that they are praying for me, or when they ask me to pray for them it is touching.
    I think where things have gone side wise of late is when this phrase has been offered as the means to an end. Take, for example, the victims of recent hurricanes who have lost all their possessions, who are homeless and, perhaps, have no money and are in need of medical treatment and a person tells them, offhandedly or, maybe, sincerely, “I am praying for you.” If that is all they can offer, fine; it is a lot, but out of sensitivity, like you said, Lilly, we should ask first and if we can respond in other ways too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective on prayer, Pam! Love the example situation you used. That is just another case where humble discretion is needed and the words can be interpreted differently than they were meant! If the person is religious and still praising God in the storm, perhaps those words would uplift them; if they are feeling angry and cynical about it all, perhaps praying for them without mentioning it is better.

      Your example also reminds me of that verse in James about actually helping people vs. “wishing them well.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? James 2:15-16
    Sometimes, I think, we use “I’ll pray for you” as a replacement for doing something more. Prayer is doing something, this much I know. But sometimes we have the capacity to do more, and we choose to find a way “out” by telling someone we’ll pray for them. We need to be acting in love, not just praying for love.
    Great post Lily. Thank you for the wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Tim! Also a great point! We should reflect on our words, actions, and motives to see if we are being sincere in offering prayer or if it is some version of lip service. Faith and works go hand-in-hand…works can’t save, but faith produces good works!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Title immediately got me and pulled me!!! I love how you covered this. You are not telling not to pray but to pray with kindness and understanding. I think posts like these sometimes make readers feel a little defensive (conviction can go a long way), and I’m not sure if you experienced that or not, but these posts are needed and we need to write more of them. ❤ ❤ keep writing the truth!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I never really thought it the phrase “I’ll pray for you” as being taken negative, but this is very enlightening. Good post Lily..

    Like

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