Time-bound and fallen creature that I naturally am, I often forget the spiritual and eternal element of reality. That’s why the things that fill my prayers are so regularly absent from Paul’s—and why the things that fill his prayers are so regularly absent from mine. He has his eyes fixed on eternity. His prayers are spiritual. We need to make ours so, too.
To do that, I want to erase the two words that shut most of our prayers down. Here they are:
If you were to record my prayers, I have a sad suspicion you’d hear a lot of “be with”: “Dear Lord, I pray you will be with Tom as he goes to work, and be with Mary also, who’s having her wisdom teeth removed on Tuesday, and be with… and be with… and be with… and be with us all. Amen.” This is unimaginative. It’s limited. It’s certainly not spiritually ambitious, like Paul is. And it is, I think, unnecessary. Jesus said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28 v 20). He’s promised to be with Tom and with Mary. It’s a bit of a waste to make the sum total of my prayer for them the request that Jesus would do what he already said he’d do, and has already started doing.
Search the Scriptures, and you won’t find a prayer recorded that just asks God to “be with” his people. The prayers of the saints have far more weighty, far more spiritual concerns. Go to Nehemiah. In the opening section of Nehemiah, word comes to him in exile, working as the cupbearer of the Persian king, telling him that the walls of God’s city, Jerusalem, are broken down and the gates are burned with fire. It is a complete fiasco up there. Nehemiah is brokenhearted by this; he decides that he will seek to do something about it. But, of course, he knows the truths we saw in the previous chapter of this book, and so…
“As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said…” (Nehemiah 1:4-5)
You can read his prayer, right there in Nehemiah 1:
O Lord God, please be with all the people in Jerusalem…
No, he doesn’t say that!
He says (and I’m paraphrasing), “O God, you great and awesome and magnificent God, who rules over the universe. We, your people, bow before you and confess our sins and our shortcomings before you.” Can you see what he’s doing? He’s getting spiritual before he gets practical. He knows that the issue of the walls in Jerusalem is a metaphor for the real spiritual condition of the people. The reason that the wall is collapsed and broken down is because of the spiritual needs of their hearts. So Nehemiah prays first about what matters most:
Lord, I must confess our sins. Lord, I must acknowledge our complete dependence upon you. Lord, let us turn our gaze to the things that really matter, because we have completely lost sight of what’s going on.
I’m humbled by Nehemiah; I’m humbled by Paul. How small, how narrow-minded are my prayers. How “be with” are my prayers.
In my experience, those of us who are parents are particularly at risk of this kind of attitude when it comes to our children. If you have kids, here’s one way to diagnose whether your prayers are over-practical and under-spiritual. What do you pray for your kids, when you pray for them (if you do)? Would our prayers for our children reveal that we understand that their spiritual condition matters more than their financial or relational or vocational well-being? Would our prayers reflect the truth that their position in Christ matters infinitely more than their position in school or college or the office or society? All that matters may be brought before God, but we must always bring before God those things that matter most.
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher at Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world. He graduated from theological college in London and served two churches in Scotland before moving to Ohio. He is married to Susan and together they have three grown children.