Scott Dannemiller’s excellent post, The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying, about the misuse of the word blessing, got me thinking about other things that Christians say that we should probably re-think. One of these is, “I’ll pray for you.” We say it (usually) with good intentions. But to the unchurched, it can sound confusing or even divisive.
When to say it: Tell someone, “I’ll pray for you” if (1) you’re actually planning to pray for them (make sure you follow through), (2) you know they would be happy for you to pray for them, and(3) you think it will encourage them to know you’re praying.
If those three conditions are met, saying, “I’ll pray for you” makes perfect sense. Go for it. But here are some examples of inappropriate uses of “I’ll pray for you,” and what you can say instead. (You can still pray, even when you don’t say so.)
When you should be doing more to help. A friend tells you she and her husband are having marital problems, and really need to spend some time alone together. You say, “I’ll pray for you.” What to say instead: “Let me watch your kids over the weekend,” “Here’s a gift card to a restaurant,” etc. None of us has the resources to take on all the problems of the world, but when we see a need, and we have the means to help, we should help. (And pray, too.) “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)
When you don’t know what else to say. A woman in your office tells you that she just got fired. You don’t know how to respond to her teary-eyed news, so you say, “I’ll pray for you.” Truth be told, you’re just glad you weren’t fired. The words roll off your tongue only to fill the empty space. What to say instead: “I’m here,” “What can I do to help?” (If you offer help, give it.) If you can’t take that on, try a simple, “I’m sorry,” coupled with a physical gesture, like offering a drink of water or a tissue.
To bring the conversation around to spiritual issues. You heard that your brother’s new girlfriend is not a Christian, and you want to talk with her about that. She’s talking about her educational goals, and you answer, “I’ll pray for you.” Now you’re on topic to talk about Jesus, right? No. Unbelievers are not inherently stupid. Most people see through that manipulation, and realize that you’re not interested in them as a person, but only as a soul to be “won.” What to say instead: If you care about someone and take an interest in their life, you earn the right to talk about such an intimate subject as faith. The most natural and unoffensive way to bring the conversation around to Jesus is to talk about what He means in your life. Talk about your faith as a natural extension of your life.
To someone you know is anti-Christian. Most non-Christians, whether or not they believe in prayer, accept “I’ll pray for you” as an expression of good will. They may even welcome your prayers. But not everyone. Imagine your Wiccan neighbor telling you, “I’ll cast a healing spell for you.” Though it’s an expression of kindness, it might rattle some Christians to know that a spell is cast on their behalf. That’s how “I’ll pray for you” feels to some non-Christians who have strong feelings about Christianity. What to say instead: “May I pray for you?” And if they answer no, don’t do it. God knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8). Or just don’t say anything about prayer, and pray for them privately. God hears our secret prayers (Matthew 6:6).
To have the last word. As a Christian, I’m ashamed to even mention this, but too often, “I’ll pray for you” is Christianese for, “I disapprove of you and I will not listen to you.” Someone says you’re a simpleton for believing in the virgin birth or the Resurrection, and you come back with, “I’ll pray for you.” It’s smug and rude. Jesus said to pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44), not to have the last word. Pray for them in private. What to say instead: This is a two-part answer. (1) If the person is sincerely trying to have a discussion, discuss. Discussion involves listening. Hear them out. You don’t need to feel defensive. The truth holds up under scrutiny. If you don’t know the answer to something, say so. Use it as an opportunity to find an answer and strengthen your own faith. Try to find common beliefs that you can build a relationship on. (2) If they’re just arguing, berating you, or showing off, you don’t have to say anything. Humble yourself. Like Jesus. Let them have the last word. Show respect, but disengage.
As Christians, we believe that when we pray, we approach the throne of God and enter into His presence (Hebrews 4:16), so let’s not treat prayer so flippantly. Let’s give it the respect it deserves.
What other Christian expressions have you heard used in a confusing or divisive way? How did you handle it?
Kathryn A. Frazier is a freelance copyeditor, proofreader, and writer. She lives in Tampa, Florida with her beloved family, Scruffy Dog and Valentino the Ridiculously Tiny Dog. It's hot there. And swampy. With gators. She's really brave.