The Context of Stephen’s Prayer
Acts tells us that Stephen was a man of keen intellect, forceful personality, and devoted service. These traits, especially the first two, got him into trouble. No one cared that he was part of the team that ministered to Hellenistic Jewish widows, but they cared quite a bit when he started winning arguments in synagogues and on street corners.
Stephen was hauled before the supreme religious authority in Israel. The council offered Stephen an opportunity to speak in his own defense, and, not surprisingly, Stephen took the opportunity to retell the story of Israel. The problem was how he told that story. Sure, he faithfully recounted many of the most important events of Israel’s history. He even quoted Scripture. But he used his retelling of Israel’s history to claim—with palpable ferocity—that those before whom he stood were in league with the villains of that history and not with its heroes. For this, the assembly rose as one to stone him to death.
The Content of Stephen’s Prayer
It is while they were stoning Stephen that he began to pray (Acts 7:59-60). We are only given two lines of this prayer, both of which are significant. In the first, Stephen committed his life into the hands of the one who had saved him. Such a statement, simple though it was, is plenty enough to be worthy of our notice.
Nevertheless, it is the second line of Stephen’s prayer that I think is particularly important. Echoing the prayer Jesus himself prayed on the occasion of his execution (cf. Luke 23:34), Stephen asked that the crime that these men were committing not be counted against them. Yes, Stephen was carrying out the commands that Jesus gave about how one should treat one’s enemies (cf. Matthew 5:43-44), but, more importantly I think, he was imitating the very character of Jesus.
The Contemporary Significance of Stephen’s Prayer
In other words, Stephen had learned how to pray in a way that reflected the heart, the desires, and the intentions of his Lord. I am convinced that this is how we should pray, too. Praying in a way that reflects the heart, desires, and intentions of Jesus provides an important counterbalance for the self-oriented aspects of prayer and a necessary corrective to any narcissism that may be present in our prayer life.
It is important to be clear at this point that I am not suggesting that we ought to be fake when we pray. Sometimes, our attitudes are nothing like Jesus’ attitudes, and I subscribe to the theory that it is better to be honest about those instances than it is to pretend that they do not exist. And, I am not suggesting that we can become people who pray like Jesus overnight. It takes time to become like Jesus, and that applies to prayer as much as it does to anything else.
Nevertheless, as we grow in Christ and experience the Spirit’s work in our lives, I think that our prayers ought to betray more and more of the heart of the One to whom we are praying. We should aspire to be more like Jesus, not just in praying for our enemies, but in every aspect of our prayer life. As we do so, we will connect with our Lord on an even deeper level.