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Never Underestimate the Power of Presence

How do we respond when tragedy strikes?

Too often, because we don’t know what to say, we feel we can do nothing.

In the Old Testament, Job experienced immense tragedy when he lost his business, his children and his health in almost one fell swoop. News of his tragedy spread and his three friends make the trek to comfort him.

Seeing him from a distance, they were overwhelmed. Their wealthy friend was usually nicely groomed, healthy and fit, and in good spirits. Now his clothes were torn and beard shorn, as he sat in the dust weeping.

They responded with empathy, tearing their clothes and weeping too. They sat down in the dirt next to Job.

And they sat with him for the next seven days and nights without saying a word. Whether this was intentional or just a sign of their overwhelming grief, we’ll never know. It’s telling, though, in that it illustrates the power of just being present with a hurting friend.

One of our ministry staff described a similar event in how his father’s coworker Art responded when his mother was dying. He writes:

When things got bad, everyone flew in. Aunts, cousins, grandparents. They were full of distractions—trips to the zoo, cigarettes, loud jokes.
Dad spent most nights in the hospital room alone, doing his best to look death in the eyes. When Art finished his shift at 3:00 a.m., he would join Dad, hat in hand, working the cigar in the corner of his mouth. They didn’t talk, but Art came almost every night and sat, reading his King James Bible in the eerie loneliness of that awful room.

And I don’t mean to slight anyone else who was there—who can blame them?—but all the casseroles and condolences didn’t mean much. Art was simply present, offering no critiques or advice. He would occasionally weep, occasionally pray, and then he would leave Dad sleeping fitfully in the thinly padded hospital chair.

I learned a lot that Christmas. It was a dark time, chaotic and unraveling. I learned what fear, what death looked like. But through Art, and others like him, I learned what love looked like, too. I learned why Jesus cried at a funeral. I learned that sometimes the only thing that should be offered is silence.

Perhaps it was the comforting presence of friends that led Jesus to take Peter, James, and John with him when he went to pray in the garden of Gethsemane. As he faced the sacrifice to come, he didn’t seek their words of comfort, but rather just their companionship.

Similarly, Job’s friends provide an excellent example of how to respond to a friend in need. Through sharing in Job’s grief and being powerfully present, they show us what friendship is.

prayer hands

Three Questions about Prayer

“Peeking in prayer closets” originally posted on

Each day presents many opportunities to pray for others. Specific requests come through conversations, email, text, and social media. They come from family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and even, at times, complete strangers.

I’m not surprised by how often people request prayer. Life can be tough and each of us encounters those storms where we need help.

No, what sometimes surprises me is who the requests come from. I’ve had practicing Christians, practicing Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and functional atheists ask me to pray for them or for someone they love.

So is there a universal tendency for people to pray (or at least petition prayer from others)? It sure does look like it. I’ve found in our research that if you ask just about anyone “How do you communicate with God?” you’ll receive one answer: prayer.

In a recent survey, 80 percent of young adults in the U.S. said they believe in prayer. Our 20 country study from several years ago revealed that in a typical week, 90 percent of Muslims, 86 percent of Hindus, 77 percent of Christians, 47 percent of Buddhists, and 46 percent of Jews will pray.

How regularly does your average Christian pray? Church surveys show that about two-thirds of Christians pray daily. The remaining third will pray on two or more days in a typical week.

Prayer is the most common private spiritual practice. In fact, it’s twice as common as daily devotions or Bible reading.

With its universal appeal prayer becomes a powerful tool, not just as a means of ministry but also as a starting point to connect with someone spiritually. Most often we focus on the need for prayer and that is important.

But are we missing a critical opportunity?

My counseling professor once told me to carefully time when you give a crying person a box of tissues, because having a tissue often shuts down the crying and cuts short the emotional work that’s happening.

Perhaps our typical “I will add them to my prayer list” response has the same effect on (potential) spiritual conversations.

I see requests for prayer as a jumping off point for one-anothering. I encourage you to do so as well. Here are three questions to kick off your conversation:

  1. How do you like to pray? The movie The War Room included many scenes of the various characters in their “prayer closets.” Sometimes they were sitting or standing. Other times they were kneeling or even lying on the floor. Hands may be clenched or raised. In those closets, prayers were silent, whispered, spoken, written and shouted.
  1. What do you pray about most often? Through our surveys, we have learned that when we pray most of us: pray for someone else, ask for God’s help in a particular situation, express thanks or gratitude, ask for help in changing something about ourselves and pray about the wrong things we’ve done.
  1. What do you see as the benefits of praying? You know that scripture outlines many reasons to pray, but you may be surprised to learn that prayer has become a pretty hot research topic in psychology and neuroscience. In fact, the American Psychological Association identified 5 benefits of prayer:
  • Prayer improves our self-control. Like a muscle, we can strengthen our ability to control our impulses. Science shows that prayer helps to build up our self-control “muscles.”
  • Prayer makes you gentler. People who pray for others are less likely to use aggression when something angers them.
  • Prayer helps you forgive. Praying for a loved one or friend makes you more willing to forgive them.
  • Prayer increases trust. Matthew 18:20 tells us that Jesus will be among us whenever two or more of us gather in his name. Science now shows the power of praying in community. Praying with a friend increases the trust and feelings of unity between you.
  • Prayer diminishes the negative health effects of stress. In an interesting study of older adults, researchers found that praying for others reduced the stress of chronic financial problems. A key part here is the focus on others. Praying for your own material well-being did not reduce stress and its health effects.

So the next time someone asks you to pray for them definitely add them to your prayer list. Then continue the conversation by letting them peek into your prayer closet and asking them about theirs.