By R. Herbert
Not all prayer is asking for something, but a great deal of it obviously is. When we do ask, do we pray mainly for our own physical and spiritual needs and concerns? There is no doubt that it is acceptable to pray for these things – we have Christ’s encouragement to do so – but that is only part of the picture we find in the words of Jesus and in the New Testament as a whole.
Jesus certainly commanded us to pray about our own needs. “Give us this day our daily bread” lies at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:11), but we should never forget that all the petitions in that guide to prayer are for the needs of others – “us” – as well as our own.
Asking in Acts
If we continue in the New Testament and look at the Book of Acts, we find something very interesting. Acts continually speaks of prayer in the Church, but if we set aside the scriptures that simply tell us that the early church members prayed and we look only at verses telling us what the early believers were praying, in most translations we find only 2 verses in that book showing people praying for their own situations and 12 verses showing believers praying for the needs and welfare of others. This means that of the recorded prayers in Acts, some 83% are prayers on behalf of others rather than prayers for the individual who was offering the prayer.
If we have not thought about this topic before, the statistic may seem unexpected. Perhaps we would expect the ratio to be about 50/50 – prayer for others just as much as for ourselves. But the 83% prayer for others we find in Acts is a powerful statement of another way of looking at prayer – and the Book of Acts is not alone in taking this view.
Paul and Prayer
When we look at the writings of the apostle Paul, we find the principle corroborated. Paul speaks of prayer some 50 times in his epistles. Apart from non-specific examples, when we look at the nature of the prayers Paul mentions we find only three instances of praying for one’s own needs. Seven times Paul speaks of praying generally; but in some 40 of the 50 instances (80%) where he mentions specific things being prayed about, we find him speaking of praying for others or urging people to do likewise. For example, Paul tells us that he and his fellow workers prayed constantly for the spiritual needs of others:
“Therefore we also pray always for you that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness and the work of faith with power, that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).
And he urged others to continually do the same:
“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Ephesians 6:18-20, etc.).
So the pattern we found in Acts where we are told what people were praying for is repeated in the epistles of Paul where he so frequently tells what we should be praying for. These facts should speak to us. It is not a matter of attempting to establish Christian practice through statistics. It is simply acknowledging that of the prayers recorded and commanded in the New Testament Church the great majority – somewhere around 80% – are prayers for others.
Applying a Principle
That’s why we can think of this fact as the 80% principle of what we ask for in prayer. It’s an estimated number with no claim to being correct to the third decimal place, but it’s a rounded number with a clear message. The 80% principle does not mean we should not pray for our own needs – and in some circumstances, of course, our own needs may be urgent and take full precedence in our thoughts. But the 80% principle opens a window for us to see how the early Church saw prayer, how Paul encouraged us to pray; and it gives added meaning to Jesus’ words that we pray for “us” in the plural.
We certainly don’t need to feel constrained to structure our prayers to a certain percentage in a certain way, but if we are growing more and more like the One to whom we are praying, the chances are that our prayers will become increasingly full of the needs of others and reflect our concern for them. If our prayers are growing in that direction and we begin to see the needs of others as usually greater than our own needs, we can trust that God will be pleased with our prayers – perhaps 100% pleased.
R. Herbert, Ph.D., was trained in biblical studies and Ancient Near Eastern languages and archaeology. He writes for a number of Christian venues as well as for his websites at LivingWithFaith.org, TacticalChristianity.org, and FreeChristianEBooks.org.