May I Pray With You?


George* was dying and he knew it. Two nurses, both trained in HIV/AIDS and both believers, took his hands in theirs and asked, “May we pray with you?” He was ready. “Yes,” he said with the little breath he had remaining.

All around us are opportunities to pray not only for others but with others. Ever since the attacks on New York and Washington and the uncertainties that have followed, people are looking again at what they once thought they could do without. This opens doors for those of us who have always understood that God is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).

Two days after her son escaped from the collapsing World Trade Center, Jeannie told his story to a large group of women gathered at her church. Some were believers; others were not. The collective holding of
breath at the miraculous story of survival led her to say, “Life can end in an instant. If you are not sure that you are ready for eternity, I want to pray with you.” Women gathered around, and the tragedy became a gateway to prayer. When Jeannie told me that story, I realized anew that even people who have never acknowledged God are open to the gentle, caring question, “May I pray with you?”

Change and Opportunity

People’s openness to God depends so much on the shifting circumstances of their lives. A sudden illness, a death in the family, financial setbacks, deepening marital problems, a rebellious teenager-these all
awaken people to their need for help. Greg, a praying Christian friend, explains, “I pray each morning for opportunities and presume that the people I encounter will want to pray. Not all do, but people change and face new crises in their lives. Identifying the opportunities is important.”

When Greg visited a friend who was suffering from cancer, he expected that his friend would once again deflect spiritual questions as he had done in the past. But this time when Greg asked, “What would you like me to pray for?” the reply was quick: “I’d like to talk with Jesus when I die.” “You can now,” Greg replied, and they prayed together. The man died shortly thereafter.

“Few people refuse prayer,” Greg says. “And in the course of praying for them, I’m soon praying with them because they respond with `Yes,’ or they follow up my words with their own paraphrases. Some will repeat what they just told me, but this time in statements to God.” My praying friend added, “Hardly anyone is a true atheist.”

Open Hearts, Open Hands

When Jesus prayed for His disciples before He went to the cross, He didn’t limit His prayer to those who already believed. He said, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message” (Jn. 17:20). When we pray with unbelievers, we are praying with those who may yet believe.

Prayer may seem foreign to them at first. But I have discovered that when I talk to God with individuals, they have a firsthand-and sometimes first-time-experience with God that makes a second time of prayer, and perhaps an opening of Scripture, possible. Because the very act of talking with God is an acknowledgment that God exists and that He cares about each of us, these not-yet-believers have already begun to open themselves to trusting God at a basic level. At another time, conversation may arise naturally about knowing God through the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. .. but it doesn’t always happen.

One day I visited Sarah in the hospital. Though an unbeliever, she was open when I suggested praying with her about her illness. “You can talk to God too,” I invited, so she prayed with me. Later, when she was well and willing to give God the credit for her healing, I talked with her about trusting Christ for eternal life. Her reply shook me. “No,” she said with an emphatic shake of her head. “I don’t want to be a follower of Jesus. I just wanted God to heal me, and He did.”

I’ve since lost track of her. But I think of her and pray for her because I know that God once touched her, and the Holy Spirit is the divine convincer. Another day may come when she wants God not just for what He can do for her in the moment, but for salvation and eternal life.

People with whom we pray may see and sense the help and presence of God, but it may not bring an immediate soul-yielding response. Many people saw and appreciated Jesus’ miracles long before they responded to Him as their redeemer. Some never did. Even many disciples turned back and no longer followed Him (Jn. 6:66). Apparently, they wanted Jesus only on their own terms.

In the same way, some people may want our prayers, but not the God who answers prayer. We can’t push them or refuse to pray because we sense that their motivation is shallow. The awareness of who God is and where they stand with Him is God’s doing through the inner work of the Holy Spirit.

A Link in God’s Chain

We do not know who God is working with in a particular moment. Perhaps the person we are praying with is someone He is bringing to Himself, and we are a link, a helper along the way.

Our prayer may be the first time a person has ever heard his or her name expressed to God in prayer. That can be a significant, life-changing moment. That’s why the question “May I pray with you?” is not
an aggressive or threatening one. It is a caring, loving question to ask.

We can become alert to the tender times that people are living in and their openness when they see that their world is uncertain, their foundations unstable. When what they once depended upon emotionally,
physically, psychologically, and socially is no longer firm and certain, they become open to praying with a Christian. Being available and sensitive gives us opportunities to care for people in deep, spiritual ways.

God is there, and God is love. The people with whom we pray need to be reassured of that. It is time to tell others openly and frankly that we pray alone and with our families and with other believers in our
church. It is time to gently bring people into the warm circle of light that is prayer to God.