What To Do When Someone Else Is Praying: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 17

In my experiences of prayer, some of the most awkward situations that I've had have come when someone else is praying. At times, I have disagreed with what the person praying was saying and at other times I have found myself strugging to find focus. So, to explore the idea of what to do when someone else is praying, well, it has been something valuable to me. Hopefully, next time you find yourself in church listening to a preacher or someone else pray or you find yourself in a situation where someone wants to pray with / for you, recalling some of the thoughts from this article might help you.

To begin, I want to start by once again, sharing my definition of prayer: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. With this in mind, we should first realize that with corporate or public / group prayer, the goal is still the same; it doesn't change. Now, I want to conjecture here that in the group prayer event, if we are genuinely attempting to encounter the presence of God, then, God is also attempting to enter into our presence as well. And if God attempts to enter into our presence and into our situation, then, on a relational level, God is also attempting to know us intimately.

And the last sentence raises an extremely important point: When God attempts to engage us, He is also attempting to know us. And it is here that I really want to share a few thoughts regarding "God's knowledge". For most Christians, phrases like "all-knowing" or "God who knows all" or "omniscient" have a deep economic sense to them! Here's what I mean: When people talk about God as all-knowing, they talk about it in the sense of "how much" God knows. And really, in a fiscally-driven, economic-minded society, what else would we expect?

But it is my view that when we talk about God being the "Most-knowing" being in existence, we are not talking about the amount of knowledge that God has. God is not some sort of divine information monger, who, like a private investigator, is out to horde and acquire all sorts of private information or data as a means to control a situation or person(s). Nor is God so bent on storing knowledege of everything in some sort of divine database that He would just not be appeased with Himself if He did not do this. God is not out for that sort of self-aggrandizement! Indeed, some people who taut God's supposed omniscience so much, in all actuality, promote a view of God's "NEED" for all knowledge more than anything else. Yet, what makes God so great and above humans is not the amount of things He knows but rather, His holiness.

As I have argued repeatedly: God can know what God chooses to know and if God chooses to know something or not, well, because He is sovereign, that is up to Him! Those who posit the idea that God is incapable of not knowing something, actually hold a much lower view of God's sovereignty than they often admit or would like to believe! So, here, I am arguing (in addition to the posts in this series I've already written) that God, who is the Most-genuine and Most-relational being in existence, is also the Most-realationally-knowing.

To be sure, relational knowing is not only something we repeatedly encounter in Scripture but it also comports well with our basic human experiences. Much of the truth of the matter is that God's knowledge exists in relation to who and what He (relationally) knows. Think for example, about 2 Cor. 5.21 where Paul says that God made He who knew no sin to be sin (τον γαρ μη γνοντα αμαρτιαν υπερ ημων αμαρτιαν). Clearly, Paul is not saying that Christ had no idea of what sin was here! Instead, he is giving an example of the fact that Christ had no personal intimate relationship with sin. In Galatians, Paul makes these same sorts of statements a few times (See: Gal. 1.22-3).

Other passages, which speak of God "knowing" things are often meant to be taken this way but in general, are not. For example, in Lk. 16.15, where it is said that God knows the people's hearts, it is saying that God, creator of the heart, knows the sorts of motives that people can have and often display. 1 Sam. 2.3 speaks of the Lord knowing people in relation to their words and deeds, which flow from the heart. In other words: God knows these things about people as 1) They are done, and 2) They are done in regards to their realtionship (or non-relationship) to Him!

So, does all of this have something to do with "what to do when someone else is praying" or not? Of course it does! It has a lot to do with it, in fact. It has a lot to do with it because it reveals that God is not merely or simply interested in acquiring data or facts or whatever but that He is first and foremost, interested in knowing humans more intimately. And if God is interested in knowing all humans, then corporate or group prayer, definitely has some legitimacy (no, I shall not cite the "where 2 or 3 are gathered" passage here because that is not about prayer, as many suggest or suppose). Just as well, if God functions this way, then, certainly, He is the Most-relational and genuine being in existence. That being the case, God is wholly interested in our pursuits of His presence and what we might say to Him.

We might surmise from this, then, that in corporate prayer, there is a sense in which God longs to be drawn into what is being said. Or, to put it differently: there is a sense in which God longs to "HEAR" what we have to say. And that might seem simple but in all reality, the notion that God "hears" is incredible. Part of the goal in corporate prayer then, is to attempt to hear not just "what" God is hearing but also "how" God is hearing. To put it in the form of a question: How might we hear what is being said, as if we were hearing it with God's ears?

This question is significant because if we can attempt to hear with God's ears, then we have attempted to enter into an act of love. But how do we do this without acting arrogant or getting it totally wrong? Well, when we are in a setting where someone else is praying, here are some thoughts--flowing out of a theological perspective--on how we might go about doing this.

First of all, we should filter EVERYTHING through what we know about God's nature (that He is LOVE) and God's character (that He is holy, just and desires authentic relationships with humans). This is a practice that I've began to implement in my own life and I've found that it can not only safeguard me in lots of ways but that it also allows me to be much more genuine. For example, if someone says something while praying that I disagree with, I can ask them about it later (as opposed to getting un-focused during the event). If they get offended (which they have!), so what, that is on them. However, it also allows for affirmation to occur, when possible, which edifies the Body of Christ. In approaching the prayer, I am trying to engage them in thoughtful and respectful conversation about an important matter; I'm attempting to be authentic! And that genuineness and authenticity should not just be reserved for my private prayer life but it should flow into the life of the community as well! Like God, when people enter into the prayer event in the midst of one another, they are becoming vulnerable and taking risks!

So, if this is an issue you struggle with, I would encourage you to do some deep study on God's nature and character. Then, you can filter all public prayers through these things. Finally, I would ask those who might disagree with such views to think about this: If having information about another person is in some way, understood as having a sort of power or control over them, then what might this suggest about the maligned view of God (as a data-monger) that has been put forth for so long? God desires to know us intimately but He does not force the issue! He takes the risk that we will trust Him or not and along with that, takes the risk that He may or may not get to "know" us intimately and relationally. The other view of God is akin to a sort of knowledge rapist, a God who violates the most intimate parts of our lives without our invitation. Friends, this is an image of God that humans have created and that has become an idol that we finally need to dispense with. What a great thing that God is above all, the Most-genuine and relational being in existence!!!

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