HOW ON EARTH DO WE PRAY FOR THE WORLD?
Tips on interceding for the bigger picture
The idea of global citizenship may be overstated today – most people don’t travel the world or express great interest in every corner of it – but a sense of global duty is one of the marks of our faith. Many Christians are well linked to other countries through the support of mission agencies and partners. The faith is rooted in a sense of universality: ‘God so loved the world’; mission: ‘go and make disciples of all nations’; and prayer: ‘I urge that intercession should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions’.
It would be the most fascinating audit we could ever make, to analyse the shape of intercessions being made for the salvation and welfare of this world each day, but this is a matter for God to sift, and perhaps we should be grateful, lest we look like Bruce Almighty pulling out the filing cabinet on prayer, if you’ve seen the film.
So what is the world coming to? Usually a resigned sigh accompanies this observation; the sense that things only get worse and there isn’t much we can do about it. Let’s begin with a very impressionistic and partial assessment of the world today. This is an era of unprecedented globalisation, as flows of capital, labour and goods intensify and communications happen in real time speed, never quite giving people the space to breathe. Despite assumptions rooted in the late twentieth century, many more people are being lifted out of poverty and we can expect to see this trend continue. However, poor governance and endemic corruption hinder this progress in too many nations. Inequality is narrowing between countries but growing within most countries, threatening the common bonds of trust and mutual regard which are the foundation of a flourishing society. Inequality between nations will continue to drive immigration, posing challenges for both receiving and exporting nations.
More people are living in places of insecurity and violence than since the end of the Second World War, making for great unhappiness and pain among those trapped by conflict. Basic freedoms to speak your mind have been rolled back in many places, including rich nations like Russia and China. The rise of radical Islam shows no sign of abating and it is associated with the persecution of the Church. The Middle East has practically been hollowed out of Christians in a decade of invasion and civil war. China continues to harass and inhibit the Christian Church, but spectacular growth in the numbers of Christians could make this the century of the Chinese Church in the way the twentieth century belonged to the American Church. One of our most strategic prayers should be for the gifts and energy of the Chinese Church to be released for the good of the global Church.
The picture we get of the world today is nevertheless a partial and distorted one. There are countless sources from which to consume news, but if anything, less foreign news gets reported today than a generation ago; the recent conflicts are an exception to the rule on the main news outlets, which remain dominated by domestic news. This was reflected in a General Election campaign in which foreign affairs barely got a mention. We don’t hear much about India and only about Pakistan with the latest suicide bomber or drone strike. Beyond northern and southern Africa, little gets reported from the continent; the endless conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo barely rates a mention now. Meanwhile, Latin America only exists when we talk about the UK’s domestic drug problem; little is said of its devastating effects on civil society there.
There are ways round this, and one of the most instructive is to switch to one of the digital news channels beyond BBC and Sky. Some of these channels, like Russia Today and CCTV (China) are little more than mouthpieces for authoritarian regimes, but others, like France 24 and Euronews provide a different perspective on global events which can illuminate an issue.
But how do we pray for this teeming world?
The first priority is to believe that God is already in the place and among the people we are praying for at a distance. This may seem unexceptional, but it is surprising how easily we sustain an imperial mentality around global mission; the idea that our prayers bring the Holy Spirit to people rather than the Holy Spirit bringing our prayers to the people he is working among. What is God doing already? What do we think he might be doing, even if we don’t know? This is where spiritual gifts and the free flowing power of the Holy Spirit in the life of an intercessor is crucial, to interpret God’s initiative in ways which cannot be discerned from secular news.
A second priority is to know as much as we can about the places we are praying for – to take us deeper into prayer than a routine: ‘Lord, bless Nigeria / Belarus / Indonesia / Chile’. However valid that simple prayer may prove in the providence of God, being acquainted with the needs and aspirations of a community pay dividends in prayer. Many of us benefit from the emails of mission partners which offer a bespoke introduction to prayer; this kind of communication surpasses anything national news can supply us with in its immediacy and precision. There are 130 countries (two-thirds of the world) in which Reuters and Associated Press do not have a TV bureau; most TV channels are dependent on these two outlets for news, so we can see the limitations which personal contacts in another country may spare us from.
In praying for a place, we should always aim to take a step back and survey the wider scene, asking God for gifts of knowledge and spiritual wisdom to fire our prayers. Sometimes it is just one tiny, apparently inconsequential prayer which achieves lasting goals. Intercession takes on the strongholds which oppress people and try to turn them away from God. Often it takes years to demolish these strongholds, but occasionally one prayer can be like taking a tin of beans from a huge triangle of carefully built cans in a supermarket – it doesn’t just puncture a hole, it brings the whole edifice crashing to the ground like the walls of Jericho.
A third priority is to stay with the issue we are praying about and not to desert it like a channel hopper with a remote control. This is usually exhausting and counter-intuitive. The culture surrounding us makes the assumption that problems that won’t budge should be avoided. We are not supposed to spend our time on situations that can’t be changed; life is too short. Yet it is precisely because life is so short that we should spend our time in places that will not yield. Too many people leave this world without knowing about Jesus or experiencing some of the tangible blessings of freedom, health, justice and wealth.
Thank God his kingdom is growing as I write and in the secret places inspired by the secret prayers of faithful people. Sometimes we see the outcome of our prayers; many times we don’t. There are results, but these may only be released at the end of time. Prepare for some wonderful surprises
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