English is a hard language to learn. It plays fast and loose with its own rules of grammar. And it refuses to conform to the basics of linguistics shared by virtually every other language — basics such as gender, case, and predictable syntax. No doubt, this is a consequence of the long and storied history of English-speaking peoples. As J. R. R. Tolkien noted, there is no such thing as a language without a history. As English-speakers ventured out across the globe during the Age of Exploration, they imported bits and pieces of language and expression from a myriad of other cultures into the warp and woof of the mother tongue. Consequently, the irregularity of the grammar and, especially, the pervasive use of idiom makes English one giant inside joke.
One, not so subtle, example is the phrase, “asking for a friend?” Nothing is more disingenuous than this qualifier. We tack it on to uncomfortable or embarrassing questions. Questions that, if actually from us, would surely reveal what we want to conceal. But like the Emperor with new clothes, everyone knows the game, but no one will admit it. We all know who is really asking the question. “Asking for a friend” does not conceal anything – quite the contrary. Yet we all play the game. And the asker is allowed to lay all censure for shocking questions upon some imaginary friend. The question is depersonalized allowing us to broach delicate concerns in third person rather than first or second. Asking for a friend makes questions academic, not biographical. Or so we think.
But there is a remarkable exception to this ruse – a time when “asking for a friend” is just that. And that is intercessory prayer. Typically, our chief concern in prayer is typically ourselves, asking for the things we want or need. And, indeed, there is nothing wrong with this. Scripture calls this dimension of prayer supplication, which is another way of saying “to ask.” The Bible encourages us to ask God for what we need. Jesus instructed his disciples and by extension us.
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”Luke 11:9-13
And in another place, Jesus promised, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” (John 16:23) Jesus’ brother, James, wrote, “you do not have, because you do not ask.” But then goes on to warn “you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”(James 2:4) We are instructed to ask boldly. The author of the Hebrews reminds us of this. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
But James warning should give us pause. What should we ask for? What types of things? And how do we ask? Interestingly, most of the instruction in Scripture regarding involves praying for others. While we are certainly to ask for our own needs, the bulk of our asking is to be for others through intercessory prayer. And like most other aspects of our prayer, the prayer of the gathered church should model the trajectory for our private prayer. The Apostle Paul, in giving instruction to Timothy regarding worship in the Ephesian Church wrote.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.1 Timothy 2:1-4
The church has always understood this to mean that in public worship we are to pray for others – for those responsible for government, for the peace purity and prosperity of the church, for the general welfare of society and for the spread of the gospel among all peoples. Christian worship puts a strong emphasis on intercessory prayer, particularly in public worship. John Calvin noted that intercessory prayer exhibited the church’s core value.
“It has pleased God to work with human beings through human beings. We are creatures of need. We need God and we need each other. It is therefore through the ministry of other people that God in his wisdom has chosen to bless us. It is in our intercession for each other that we realize what it is to be the Church.”
Just as Jesus’ prayer was characterized by intercession, so must ours be. We are to “ask for a friend.” We are to be bold askers at the throne of grace and mercy. But much, if not most, of our asking is for others. When we gather in church and pray alone in our closet, how much of our asking is “asking for a friend?”
In our idiom, “asking for a friend,” is a euphemism for our own concerns. But when it comes to Christian prayer we are called to ask boldly for others through the ministry of intercession. Join us this Lord’s Day, May 31 as we gather for worship both in person and by live-stream and consider Psalm 122 which calls us to pray for the sake of our brothers and to intercede for the church, the world, and our neighbors.