Know Your Christianese: Prayer Edition
A young associate pastor accompanies his mentor to a private meeting of pastors from around the country. As they take their seats the host says, "To start us off, let's have a few rounds of the best jokes."
An elderly minister stands up and says "37," and everyone laughs. Another yells "49," and the crowd cackles hysterically. This goes on for a while, when the young pastor turns to his senior and says, "I don't get it, numbers aren't funny." His boss explains that since the same folks attend this meeting every year, they know all the jokes. Instead of wasting time by telling the same jokes everyone has heard, they just tell the punch lines, which they've numbered to save time.
The associate, wanting to fit in with his colleagues, jumps up and yells "44." When absolutely no one laughs, he sits down, embarrassed and confused. The old pastor leans over and says, "You told it wrong."
Christianese Spoken Here
Whether we've been in the church for a few days or several decades, we often find—like this young pastor—certain terms or phrases that everyone but us seems to understand. Like most groups, we Christians have our own insider language, technical terminology, or characteristic idioms that only those in the know can comprehend. It can be frustrating when we hear such jargon and don't know what exactly it means or where it came from. Too embarrassed to ask for a definition, we flip through our Bibles or search through a concordance to find elusive explanations.
As an aid in translating "Christianese" (and because we aren't sure what the terms mean either), The Gospel Coalition is putting together an ongoing series to explain the meaning of obscure phrases that Christians use when we talk to our fellow believers. In this inaugural article, we'll examine a few terms often associated with prayer.
Hedge of Protection
Example: "The congregation will be praying a hedge of protection around John and Jill as they go off to college this fall."
Explanation: "If somebody didn't know that Christianity's roots began in a rural, agricultural area (such as the near Middle East)," says Tim Stewart, creator of the Dictionary of Christianese website, "it wouldn't take them long to figure it out, judging by the language we use when we pray."
As Stewart explains, in the Bible hedges are mentioned as secure barriers around vineyards (Isaiah 5:5; Mark 12:1), and Satan refers to God's protection and favor on Job as "a hedge around him" (Job 1:10). Christians likely adopted this imagery and language from Job 1:10. The prayer is often invoked (e.g., a hedge around, about, or even over the person being prayed for) as a request for God to protect a person from threats both spiritual and physical.
Example: "We're going to ask Sister Betsy, one of the congregations most ardent prayer warriors, to pray a hedge of protection around Jill and John."
Explanation: "Effective intercessors who are greatly used by God in prayer are at times referred to as 'prayer warriors,'" former missionary Wesley Duewel says in his book Touch the World Through Prayer. "It is correct to use the term in this way, for great prayer demands doing battle with the forces of evil."
The Bible doesn't use the term "prayer warrior," though the warfare imagery is biblical. In Ephesians 6, Paul tells believers to,
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and shaving put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
Covet Your Prayer
Example: "As our family faces this difficult time, we covet your prayers for John and Jill."
Explanation: In the Ten Commandments, God clearly says, "You shall not covet" anything that is your neighbor's (Ex. 20:17, ESV). So why do some Christians say they "covet" our prayers?
In modern usage, the term covet is almost exclusively used to mean "to desire wrongfully." But in many of the older translations of the Bible, such as the King James Version (1611), the word was used in both a positive and a negative sense. Like the NIV and ESV, the KJV uses the term "covet" in the negative sense, such as in Exodus 20. But the KJV also uses the term positively, such as in 1 Corinthians 12:31, when Paul admonishes us to "covet earnestly the best [spiritual] gifts." Newer versions translate that phrase as "eagerly desire" (NIV) or "earnestly desire" (ESV) rather than "covet earnestly."
When Christians say they "covet your prayers" they simply mean they earnestly desire that you pray for them.
Example: "Please pray that God will give Brother John and Sister Jill traveling mercies as they head out on their mission trip to the Congo."
Explanation: In Luke 10:25, Jesus tells a parable that begins, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead." We tend to gloss over this part of the parable, treating it as the setup to the entry of the good Samaritan. But for Jesus' original audience—and for most people prior to the 20th century—such dangers encountered while traveling were all too real.
There is no record of frequent travelers in the Bible, like the apostles Peter and Paul, ever asking for "traveling mercies." The phrase appears to have become popular in the late 19th century and was used at first almost exclusively of church workers on a long journey for the purpose of ministry work. In the 20th century, however, the phrase began to be used in asking for God's blessings and protection on believers traveling for any reason.