We can learn how to pray for unbelievers by modeling the prayers Jesus prayed. John 17 is Jesus’ longest recorded prayer and shows us how He prayed. Verse 3 says, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” He prayed that people come to know God the Father. And the means by which they could know God is through Christ the Son (John 14:6; 3:15–18). If this was Jesus’ desire, we know we are right when we pray similarly. Any prayer that agrees with God is an effective prayer (James 5:16; 1 John 5:14).
Second Peter 3:9 also gives us a glimpse into the heart of God toward unbelievers. It says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” It is not God’s desire that anyone spend eternity away from His presence (Romans 6:23). Jesus Himself told us to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send forth laborers into His harvest (Matthew 9:38). When we pray for repentance in the lives of unbelievers, we are in agreement with God. We can also pray for opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus so that people can come to know His goodness (Galatians 6:10; Colossians 4:5; Ephesians 5:15–16). We can pray for boldness, like the apostles did, in seizing those opportunities when God makes them available (Acts 4:13, 29; Ephesians 6:19).
We can also pray that God will orchestrate whatever circumstances are necessary to turn stubborn hearts toward repentance. Psalm 119:67 says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” It often takes painful circumstances to drive us to Christ. When we pray for loved ones who don’t know Jesus, it is tempting to ask God for protection and blessing. However, it is sometimes necessary to pray the opposite if that is what it takes to break the control that idolatry has on their lives. Comfort, materialism, sensuality, and addiction are false gods that keep unbelievers in bondage. Praying the will of God may require that we ask Him to remove His protection and comfort in order to drive them to the place where they must seek God. There is nothing more important for our unsaved loved ones than that they seek God and find Him.
Praying for others touches the heart of God (James 5:16). It is one way we show love for other people (1 John 4:7). Even when we are not sure how to pray, we can take comfort in the promise of Romans 8:26. God knows we don’t always know what to pray. He has sent the Holy Spirit to intercede for us so that the desires of our hearts are transported to the throne room of heaven.