Praying with a hurting loved one is one of the most powerful ways to encourage her (Eph. 4:29; 1 Thess. 5:11), sympathize with her (Rom. 12:15), carry her burdens (Gal. 6:2), and point her to the presence and benefits of Christ (Ps. 145:18; Heb. 4:14–16).
As Charles Spurgeon remarked, “No man can do me a truer kindness in this world than to pray for me.”
Yet there are a few common mistakes we can make when praying with others that can hinder the effectiveness of these moments. Consider four mistakes and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Praying ‘fix it’ prayers.
Imagine your friend Sally just learned some bad news. She’s really hurting. After she explains what’s going on, you offer to pray for her. What should you pray for?
Consider the difference between the following prayers (and ask yourself which example sounds more like your typical prayers):
Prayer #1: Lord, help Sally to seek you. Help her to be consistent in her Bible reading and not to forsake spiritual disciplines. Help her to exercise regularly, meet with believers often, and maybe even talk to a counselor. Help her to keep Jesus at the center of her life and to focus on you instead of on her circumstances. Amen.
Prayer #2: Lord, my heart hurts for Sally right now. Give us the strength to trust you even when we cannot see what you’re doing. You have promised to be near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18), so make your nearness felt. You have promised to be a refuge in times of trouble (Nah. 1:7), so let Sally feel your protection. O God, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you (2 Chron. 20:12). Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Prayer #1 is simply a to-do list for Sally. We might call this a “fix it” prayer. Notice that in this prayer, the primary person you’re asking to do things is actually not Jesus. It’s Sally!
Meanwhile, prayer #2 enters into lament with Sally. We might call this a “prayer of intercession.” The primary person you’re asking to do things is God himself.
There’s certainly a time to give advice, but prayer isn’t the place for it. Prayer is not a free pass to share your opinions with the other person while pretending to talk to God (this is manipulative and the other person will feel it). Rather, prayer is an opportunity to join arm-in-arm with your loved one, to call on God to act. It’s to help bring your loved one’s emotions and needs to God when she might not have the strength to do so herself.
Mistake #2: Skipping listening.
There’s certainly a time to give advice, but prayer isn’t the place for it.
Another common mistake is to jump to prayer too quickly, without taking time to listen and ask questions first. If we skip this step, our prayers will lack compassion and might even be misguided. One of the best ways to cultivate compassion and understanding is by asking searching questions before offering to pray. How are you feeling about this situation? What are you struggling with the most? How is this affecting your faith? How exactly can I pray for you?
In intercessory prayer, your job is to represent the person for whom you’re praying. You must be able to accurately enter into her emotions and needs and to communicate these things to God on her behalf. Your intercessory prayers should leave the other person feeling like, “She gets me.” This won’t happen unless you first take time to listen.
Mistake #3: Neglecting God’s promises.
There’s perhaps nothing we need to hear more when we’re hurting than God’s Word. God’s Word gives grace to the broken (Acts 20:32), guidance to the lost (Ps. 119:105), hope to the hopeless (Ps. 119:114), peace to the fearful (John 16:33), satisfaction to the hungry (Ps. 81:10). When you pray, don’t depend on your words alone—pray the word of Life itself (John 6:68; Acts 5:20; Phil. 2:16).
My personal favorite passage to pray over hurting friends is Psalm 143:6–12. If you don’t know how to pray for a hurting loved one, open up your Bible and pray these verses for her. This prayer asks God to provide his presence, love, direction, deliverance, teaching, Spirit, protection, and salvation. Many other psalms serve as ready-made prayers for hurting souls.
Mistake #4: Forgetting follow-up.
When a loved one shares something vulnerable with you, she’s entrusting you with one of her most precious treasures—her heart. Following up not only communicates that you value her, it also reaffirms that you’re a safe person and someone she can trust.
Following up not only communicates that you value her; it also reaffirms that you are a safe person and someone she can trust.
A useful habit is to set a “follow-up with [insert name]” reminder on your phone for a couple of days down the road (the best time to do this is immediately after the initial conversation ends). Don’t rely on your memory alone. A visual reminder helps protect us from being distracted by the busyness of life.
Praying with a loved one is a powerful means of grace and a precious gift of God. Let’s steward this gift well by using it to reflect Christ—who enters into our emotions with us (John 11:32–36; Heb. 4:14–16), listens well (Ps. 66:19–20), speaks words of life (John 6:68), and never leaves us alone in our suffering (Ps. 34:18; Heb. 13:5).