As a pastor I am asked to pray for people all the time. Even more frequently situations come up in which the socially appropriate, expected response is "I'll pray for you." When those situations come up, more often than not, other people around me are uttering the familiar phrase and I am looking befuddled like "why did you say that?"
I have been working and working to understand this impulse, but something deep in me strongly resists uttering the words. Oh I've said them. Usually when the external pressure was so intense there seemed to be no polite way to avoid it, as when every other person in the room has made their pledges of prayer and then turned to look at me patiently, but expectantly. Or when I felt completely helpless or lost for other possible responses to a situation... but it is precisely in those situations that I feel most convicted that it is the wrong thing to say and the moment the words have left my mouth I regret it.
Partly I resist the words because they make me into a hypocrite. Yes I actually do pray for other people, but not as often as I have promised I will. Far too often my pledge of prayer has been worthless. I promise myself every day I will get better about keeping lists and remembering everything I am told, and I will be more disciplined about when and where I say my prayers etc... etc... but until I am a better person than I am right now I will keep breaking promises to myself and to you.
I also do not like promising to pray for people because it is too easy. It is something I can say if I don't want to commit to something more difficult. It is easy to avoid the work of compassion, attention, and presence and still maintain my veneer of empathy by promising my prayers. Sometimes I just don't have time for your problems. You know that too, but neither of us want to admit it. So we are both given a little guilt-reprieve by me promising to pray for you.
It also glosses over times and places when there really is nothing I can do. Rather than live with the discomfort of admitting my helplessness I can promise to pray and instantly banish awkward feelings. It is a subtle and effective barrier between me and some very ugly feelings. Oh, your cancer is inoperable? That makes me feel very sad because I love you and don't want to lose you. Promising to pray for you helps keep me in denial. Your situation makes me feel frightened because it reminds me of my own mortality? Promising to pray for you keeps me distracted. Your situatiom makes me feel guilty because I want to be able to help? Promising to pray for you satisfies my need to be helpful.
Pledges of prayer don't make sense theologically to me. First of all, my primary understanding of the purpose of prayer is that it is a discipline of sanctification. It is a process we go through for the transformation of our own hearts and minds into the heart and mind of Christ. We open ourselves to the inspiration of the Spirit and hope that prayer changes something - ourselves. So when I pray for someone else I do so primarily to teach myself compassion. This discipline is undermined by the words "I'll pray for you." It is undermined because compassion which seeks attention to itself is insufficiently humble. It is undermined because every time I promise to pray, but then do not, I strengthen my vice of respectability. I substitute the public appearance of empathy for true compassion. Like eating junk food in place of real food I slowly poison myself.
Secondly, even if you believe that intercessory prayer is meant to effect miracles in the world beyond inward transformation, what does pledging to pray accomplish? These are separate actions. Praying for miracles is one thing. Pledging to pray for miracles is another. If you care about that person and can perform miracles what difference does it make if they know you intend to do so? Is it so that you can get credit if or when the miracle occurs? So they won't be caught by surprise when their cancer suddenly goes into remission? Does the pledge make the prayer more powerful somehow?
Ultimately, as best as I am able to discern, people promise to pray for each other because it is a nice thing to say. It is the common Christian way to express concern and let people know you are attempting to sympathize with them. It is the equivalent of a get well card or a thank you note, but requiring less effort. I try to see it in the best possible light when people promise to pray for me (though it gives me no comfort). I realize they are just trying to express their support.
Still, as I am standing in conversations at fellowship hour, or scanning my twitter feed, or reading updates on facebook, I constantly bump into this phrase, "I'll pray for you." And part of me wonders, "why did you say that?"