Praying for strangers

This morning I received an email [12/4/2009 See today’s post regarding the veracity of this email], forwarded several times already, and asking that I forward it on also. It is a request for prayer, from a soldier serving in Iraq, for his wife to be healed of stage 4 cervical cancer. Here is his request:

My name is Gary Hogman. Some of you receiving this know me, some do not. My wife, Cindy, is 32 years old and has just been diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer and her chances for survival are very slim. She was pregnant with our second child and had miscarried recently at 3 months, and now we know why. This is a request for you to forward this e-mail to everyone you know asking for prayer. The more people that pray for her to be healed, the better. Pray and forward. It only takes a second to hit ‘forward’. Please do it and don’t delete this, your prayer can, and perhaps will, save her life. Please pray and ask everyone you know to pray for the HEALING of Cindy and the removal of all cancer in her body, so she may enjoy all that life has to offer, and to continue to be the wonderful mother to our 5-year-old son Michael. The power of Prayer is unsurpassed. I want the whole world to have her in their prayers the next few weeks. God will hear our cry.

I do not normally forward emails from people I do not know, even when they have been forwarded to me by people I do know (as this was). I suppose in part it is distaste for the widespread practice of forwarding all sorts of stuff to everyone in your address book, whether they are likely to be interested or not. Part of it is that I cannot verify the contents of such emails – I do not want to try to figure out which are legitimate ones worthy of being passed along and which are not, and I would rather forward none of them than all of them.

I also shy away from asking total strangers to pray for me, and I am not comfortable with receiving such requests from strangers. I don’t mind praying for strangers, but I was taught somewhere (I can’t recall where, exactly) that one of the first prayers to make is asking what/whom to pray for, and that I need not add every prayer request I hear to my prayer list. God leads us to pray for those people and situations that are closest to us (that closeness may be geographic, emotional, or one’s sphere of influence to assist practically in meeting the need). He may lead us to pray for strangers, but the mere awareness of such a request does not constitute God’s leading to pray for it.

I know that some Christians welcome the opportunity to pray for any request they hear. I suppose if I were convinced that my prayer for Cindy Hogman would save her life, I would not hesitate to pray. (I did pray for her, when I received the email, but I have to admit that the prayer did not rise with much confidence that it would make a difference.) But if it were a simple matter of “if I pray for this person to be healed, it will happen,” we would surely have a good deal less illness in the world. I don’t see much indication that it is a matter, either, of how many people pray, though I know it is common to try to get as many people as possible to pray for someone in great need.

As I often do these days, when considering a perplexing issue, I looked to see what I could find on the internet. There’s a lot of chaff out there, but lots of good stuff too. On this subject, the greatest number of hits were regarding a study done a few years ago trying to scientifically measure the effects of praying for strangers. It showed no positive effects, and in fact some people who knew they were being prayed for fared worse. Explanations range from the skeptic’s answer, that prayer does not work anyway, to speculation as to uncontrolled elements in the study (e.g. other people praying for the same people, outside of the study), to reminders that God will not be manipulated by people trying to prove a point.

I found articles and blog posts where people talk about praying for strangers. This person admits that

It is not only for altruistic reasons that I offer those prayers. I also pray for two completely selfish reasons. For one thing, it makes me feel good. For another, I hope that someday when I need it, someone I don’t know will offer a prayer for me as I lie in an ambulance or a hospital bed – or a coffin.

There seems to be widespread agreement, both by people who believe in the efficacy of prayer and those who do not, that the person doing the praying can be changed by it. In the church I grew up in, that seemed to be the primary purpose of prayer – to change to person who prays. It reinforces trust in God’s goodness and provision for our needs, it reminds us to be thankful for what we receive, and it challenges us to do what we can to meet the needs being prayed for.  It is also generally a comfort for the person being prayed for – despite the results in the study referenced above.

The perspective I found most helpful was an article in Christianity Today, discussing the results of that study. Rather than wonder why people who were prayed for did not have significantly better outcomes than those who were not (at least not as part of the study), it suggests that we marvel at how graciously God bestows blessings even on people who may not have anyone praying for them.

God is eager to answer our prayers with seemingly little regard for our competence in prayer or, at times, even our orthodoxy. This ought to give us confidence to act, believe, and work alongside the good and generous King, who calls us to advance his kingdom, bring healing to the world, and pray.

I tend, unfortunately, to view intercessory prayer more as an obligation than a privilege. God says we are to pray for others, therefore if I want to obey then I need to do it. When it comes to praying for those who are close to me – friends and family – prayer comes naturally. How could I not ask God to take care of those I love? And if those people share prayer requests for people who are important to them, I will pray for them, even if I do not know them personally.

Occasionally I will pray for someone I don’t know but see on the street, or in the store, or don’t see at all but know must be in that ambulance I see rushing by. There is some connection there, simply in the fact that we are both present in the same community, and may well have mutual friends, or children who know each other. Even if our paths do not cross again, there was something that prompted me to pray at that moment. I don’t know if it is the Spirit or not, but it may be.

Once in a great while I pray for someone because of what I have read about, such as a man in Michigan several years ago who was unwittingly responsible for the death of his youngest child. He had not really been paying attention when his wife asked him to take the boy to daycare for her, and as the older children helped out by strapping their little brother into the back of the van, he went about his daily routine without making that extra stop at daycare. By the time the daycare called his wife about the boy’s absence, and his wife called him, and he rushed out to the closed van sitting under the hot sun in the parking lot, it was too late.

For months I prayed for that man every time I thought of him. Sometimes I imagined meeting him someday, and hearing that there were times when he felt strangely comforted, as though someone were praying for him. I never heard anything about him again, so I have no idea whether he and his wife were able to find peace and hope as I prayed for them. Perhaps in some ways my prayers for him were to meet my own emotional needs, to turn a sense of horror into hope.  I hope that in some way they helped him also.

So now I will pray for Cindy Hogman. Having spent the better part of the day thinking about this because of her husband’s request, I can’t help thinking of her also. May God grant her healing, and hope to her young son and her absent husband. And may all the people who pray for the Hogmans find joy in being part of God’s purposes.

4 Responses to Praying for strangers

  1. You need to Google the name Gary Hogman. Variations of this chain letter has been circling the Internet since 2001. There are so many genuine prayer needs it is sad to see this one.

    Ken & Maggie

  2. Just because this letter has been floating around in cyberspace for years is no reason not to pray for strangers. To the contrary, we should be open and willing to offer prayer for others. If a came to you and said they were hungry would you tell them no since they were a stranger to you?

    Personally, I think it is commendable that you read the forwarded email and you were moved to pray. Nothing was hurt other than your ego. If you draw close to God the Holy Spirit will lead you to those whom to pray. To call prayer an obligation is very short sighted, it is an unselfish act of love. It is shift of focus upon others rather than self.

    • Pauline says:

      If someone came to me and said they were hungry, they would no longer be an unknown stranger. I might not know their name, but I would know their face, and have an opportunity to meet a genuine need.

      I’ve never met the girl I sponsor in Liberia. Even though I know her name and have seen her picture, I can’t say I really know her. But I know people who have visited the school she attends, and brought back the packet asking for a sponsor for her.

      That’s what I look for – some kind of connection. Something less tenuous than a many-times-forwarded email.

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