Throughout my years as a Christian, I've participated in a lot of prayer circles. We gather around, share our requests, then pray for each other. Sometimes we call dibs on requests ("I'll pray for Tony's ear thing."), other times we pray as we're lead. If there's a recognized leader, he or she might dictate who opens and closes the time of prayer. Often, the leader chooses one of those spots. The point is, I've done this at least a thousand times in fifty different ways.
Recently, I've thought about one consistent element to prayer circles, and that's the person who unloads all of what they're going through as their request. Now, before you think me heartless, I should say how I really do care about the person's struggle. I feel compassion for their suffering. But my gut reaction says, "I don't need to hear this." When it comes to praying for others, I find my prayers don't much change even after I've been educated on the back-story of the request.
If I'm honest, though, my attitude has tipped toward never wanting to hear about a person's struggles. And I already know it's incorrect. Scripture talks about holding each other accountable. It also tells us to comfort each other. I especially think of Galatians 6:2, which says, "Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ."
My attitude developed slowly during years of prayer circles and other times of ministry. For example, when I was sixteen, I read somewhere that the Greek translation of Galatians 6:2 intended people to bear one another's burdens as if it were their backpack. Literally take on their struggles and give them a break for a while. At the time, I lead worship for six hundred teenagers a week, and some of them would talk to me as if I were their pastor. Seriously, I wish I had never heard some of those things. I remember telling one girl she didn't need the spiritual advice of a teenager, she needed to go to the police. But misunderstanding Galatians 6:2, I kept trying to carry more and more backpacks. One day, I found I couldn't walk with that weight anymore.
I've learned a few things since then. First, I was wrong to take on those burdens the way I had. In a sense, I was trying to be Jesus for those people. But Jesus has already taken on the price and the weight of that evil when he died on the cross. Those people didn't get much help from me in the long run and I ended up wearing myself out.
Second, I never balanced Galatians 6:2 with other verses like 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." Yes, I'm supposed to show compassion and care for people who are suffering, but not out of my own power. I need to first receive comfort from God so I can share it with people who need it.
All that said, I still think it best to pray quickly for people in the setting of a prayer circle. The faster we pray, the sooner we give the burden to God, the quicker we see His peace come into the situation. After that, we can listen to their story. It might even change the way they tell it.