This question is both a sincere request and a loaded proposition at the same time. Let me be clear, I love prayer. It’s the single most mysterious, beautiful, powerful and meaningful thing I have the privilege to do. If someone lifts me up in prayer? Awesome! I’ll take it! If you are going before the creator of heaven and earth, and you’re going to mention me, I’d be humbled and honored. It’s amazing!
So why then, when someone asks me if they can pray for me, do I cringe? It’s because I’m not sure what they mean. If they mean that they will remember me in their private prayer time, it’s a joy; but if it means they’re going to stand there with me, lay their hand on my shoulder, or worse, my chest, I’m searching for an acceptable way to say “no thanks”.
Is this just because I’m socially awkward? Maybe. But I think there’s something else to it. Laying your hands on someone demonstrates a clear power paradigm. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes we need to humble ourselves and be prayed for. Sometimes we need the ministry of laying on of hands. Scripture supports this, but does so with context.
It should come from an elder
It should be requested/expected
It should bestow something
If someone asks if they can pray for you, what they have done is position themselves in a place of spiritual authority over you. They have also identified that you have need of assistance and have drawn you into a paradigm of acceptance or rejection of their help. In short, it has become less about what God can do, but about what they can do with their special position with God.
Let me soften this a bit, if you’ve done this, I don’t think you’re a malicious person. I wholly believe you mean well and have pure intentions. Sometimes our intentions don’t match the actions, and worse, we unintentionally can do harm.
Full disclosure, I have been on the receiving end of guerrilla prayer several times. Pushing an adorable little girl in a wheelchair invites such surprise prayer attacks. A well meaning person is moved by compassion for her, and feels compelled to be the first (in their mind) to bring healing power with their prayer and laying on of hands. This has happened no less than a dozen times, none of which have been particularly blessing. Trying to worship at church, and someone interrupts you to pray for you or your child, shopping at the grocery store and having an awkward exchange in the produce isle, or waiting for the server to bring your chicken fingers. No matter the setting, anything short of an astounding miracle leads to an awkward session of head nodding and slowly backing away. That person may feel embarrassed for a moment, or maybe feel that “at least they tried” and it’s over. What they will never see is the painful bedtime conversation with a little girl wondering what she’s doing wrong, and why she isn’t healed. It’s no surprise that I now politely decline unsolicited requests to pray for her.
If you’ve ever been on the giving end of such an interaction, and are wondering what to do; I have some unsolicited advice. First, ask yourself, “do I know this person?” If the answer is no, then don’t lead with “can I pray for you”. Second, “am I in a discipling relationship with this person?” If not, then hold your peace, or at the very least, recruit an elder to stand with you.
What is always permissible is to pray on your own. After all, the outcome really has nothing to do with you. You are petitioning God, not mustering mystical powers. That person He’s laid on your heart, can benefit just as much if they never know you prayed for them. Remember that laying on of hands is to impart something. In order to impart something, you have to have a mandate to do so. I think of it like the numerous prescriptions I write. Because of my license, I have the authority to bestow a prescription, however, if someone else writes the same information on a slip of paper, nothing will happen. There is no authority to bestow the product despite good intentions.
So can a non-elder ever lay on hands? Yes, I believe so, in instances when they are instructed to do so, or they are in a clear discipling relationship with someone who recognizes them as a spiritual authority over them. Even in these settings, I believe it’s best for the recipient to either respond to a general call, or to solicit the ministry themselves.
I’m sure there are exceptions here, and to be clear, these are my interpretations of what I see in scripture. I don’t mean to be dogmatic or insist that this be a central doctrine. Perhaps the more loving way to put it is this: you want your prayer with someone else to be an encouragement, so always check yourself to be sure it can be received as such. God will hear you either way.
Finally, please do pray for people. Pray as often as possible. Pray imperfectly and forthrightly. Pray for others in private and trust God to do what is needed. Pray for encouragement when praying with someone and if you promise to pray for someone, be faithful to do it.
Scriptures helpful to me on this topic:
1 Timothy 4:14
2 Timothy 1:6