INTERCESSORY PRAYER:

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO PRAYING FOR OTHERS

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

If it wasn’t already clear enough, the social media age has revealed on mass scale that we simply don’t know what to do (or say) when someone else is going through a challenge. We scroll down our Facebook feeds, past the trivial cat memes and the uber-personalized ad and then we finally see it. A close friend has cancer. Or maybe their mom died. Or in 2020, perhaps their entire family came down with COVID. As we contemplate our next move, we simply write... praying! For our nonspiritual friends, this may simply come in the form of sending good vibes. But in reality, many of us don’t actually follow that up with a prayer. These sentiments are usually just pleasantries that we express to others in the midst of their pain. Sunken with uncomfortable feelings of powerlessness, it’s easier to continue distracting ourselves with cat memes than truly dwell on their hardship. We can’t change their situation. And deep down, we don’t truly believe that speaking audibly to the sky or whispering something in our thoughts is going to alter their circumstances. We don’t live in the Wizarding World and we’re not Harry Potter. We can’t simply utter REPAIRFORS to heal someone’s paralytic condition, BRACKIUM EMENDO to fix broken bones or RENNERVATE to resurrect our friend’s mom from the dead. Not on our own, at least. That all sounds a bit more appropriate for Hollywood, not real life --- unless there is truly a divine presence on the other side and an active spiritual realm that is bending the course of history. This sounds a bit crazy, until you realize that the sales of healing crystals have skyrocketed in the past few years. We may be disillusioned with Christianity and the institutional church, but our culture at-large continues to believe in a so-called spiritual realm. By now, you’ve probably caught on that we’re of the mind that prayer changes things. We even wrote a whole blog about it, to which you should probably read if you haven’t exactly bought into that idea in the midst of this conversation. But today we’re talking about this crazy, wild and unlikely topic of intercessory prayer, which is a fancy word that describes praying for others.

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GOD WANTS US TO... PARTNER WITH HIM?

Okay. okay. So maybe you’re on-board with the idea that God exists and there is a spiritual realm. Yet even with this backdrop, our minds naturally keep spinning with questions. Why would God, the creator of the universe, need us to "advocate" or ask for things on behalf of other people? Isn’t he omnipotent? Doesn’t he control all things? This conversation starts all the way back at the beginning of time in the opening pages of Genesis with Adam and Eve. But before we dive into the story, it’s important to not get lost in the raging debate about the Big Bang, the age of the universe, homo-sapiens and the existence of Adam and Eve. For this blog, we want to specifically highlight that God gave authority to the earliest humans in the Garden of Eden. It says he gave us dominion over the entire Earth. It’s also noteworthy that God also gave us free will to choose our path in life. His intent was to partner with us in shaping the course of history and tending to his beautiful world. Hence, intercessory prayer. The last thing we want to extract from Genesis is that God also created a spiritual realm, which is a theme throughout the rest of scripture. The ultimate thing we learn from all of this is that God’s intention upon the creation of the world was to co-author life with us. "Co-author? What does that mean? Isn't God the author of the universe?" This goes back to God appointing Adam and Eve to be caretakers of the land, and to rule as vice-regents with him. Imagine a king delegating his rule and authority to important members of his family. In a similar way, this is about the stewardship of the creation authored by God, which he has given to us to care for. If you’re familiar with the Biblical story, you know what happens next. Humans rebelled, sin entered the world and the original perfection and peace was replaced with conflict, tension, and humanity seeking to do things their own way. Yet even in the midst of a clearly broken world, our prayers still change things. That doesn’t mean that God requires or needs our prayers to operate. He's not waiting for the correct tally of prayers to move. That’s not the picture that scripture paints. Instead out of love God created rational, free-thinking beings to participate in writing the story of humanity with him. This goes to say, our prayers matter. You may feel powerless as you scroll through tragic news on your Facebook feed, but you are not. You can engage in intercessory prayer. Your prayers, which pierce into the spiritual realm, could make the difference for someone else. Writer Skye Jethani says it best here: "We are not merely passive set pieces in a prearranged cosmic drama, but we are active participants with God in the writing, directing, design, and action that unfolds. Prayer, therefore, is much more than asking God for this or that outcome. It is drawing into communion with him and there taking up our privileged role as his people. In prayer, we are invited to join him in directing the course of his world.” The key word there is communion, which entails relationship. It's a way of appealing to our sonship or daughtership and having the confidence to approach Our Father with expectancy and childlike faith.

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CHANGING GOD'S MIND

At this point, you may be convinced that prayer matters, but how does this all work? Can intercessory prayer actually change God’s mind? And if we’re the ones shaping history, is God being caught by surprise? How could he possibly be all-knowing in that case? To find answers to these seemingly complex questions, let’s review an example from scripture. In Exodus, we see a narrative play out where Israel turned its back on God and Moses, their leader, pleaded on their behalf to spare Israel. Exodus 32 says that "the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people." Many interpret this to mean that Moses was more compassionate or merciful than God, when really Moses was simply appealing to the compassion and character of God. This doesn’t mean that God is fickle or acts on a whim. In fact, God's character remained consistent from the beginning, and Moses knew that in praying this prayer. "All of Moses’ prayer depends upon God being reliable, being consistent with the way that he acts," says theologian Dr. Ligon Duncan. From a semantics standpoint, we see words like "relented," or "changed His mind" across the chapters of the Bible. And in the New Testament, the Greek word metanoia is used, connoting a way of quite literally thinking of something again, or in a different way. Regardless of the word translation or the interpretation of what it means to "change God's mind," the key takeaway is that because of the confidence in God's character and the relationship he had with Him, Moses put himself in the place of pleading for change, and that plea was honored. And God's knowing of that plea happening doesn't diminish the efficacy of it, as we pray for things to change all the time with the underlying recognition that God already knows the future. In the end, intercessory prayer is a way of pursuing the same heart that God has for the world. It's a practice not done for show or for selfish gain, but as an extension of love. "Intercessory prayer is spiritual defiance of what is in the way of what God has promised. Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current forces," says theologian Walter Wink. Can you visualize an alternate future in which your friend is healed of cancer? Intercede for her. "Even a small number of people, firmly committed to the new inevitability on which they have fixed their imaginations, can decisively affect the shape the future takes. These shapers of the future are the intercessors, who call out of the future the longed-for new present." Notice the language used by Wink. "A defiance of the way of what God has promised." As we will get to in the next section, free will simultaneously enables great beauty and also great opposition to the will of God. Intercessory prayer is a firm plea that appeals to the heart of God and, as the famed German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said when comparing his church community to the atrocities done by the Nazi regime: "this must be stronger than that." It is not the persuasion or coercing of an indecisive Creator, but rather a deep connection to the heart of God, who cares deeply about our pain and wants to reveal his glory in us. Ultimately, scripture says that it is a mystery as to how our free will and God’s authority over all work together. It is a truth we recognize from Genesis to Revelation, but we approach this topic acknowledging that we will never fully understand how it all works during this life.

Some may deem that answer as a copout, but in reality it makes perfect sense. How could we, as mere humans, understand everything about a universe that an all-powerful Creator made? He has a 30,000 foot view, we don't. He created the cosmos, we just study them. For all the complexity that exists in the realm of physics, why is it so hard to believe that two seemingly contradictory things could seamlessly co-exist?

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A BATTLE OF WILLS

When we pray for others and engage in intercessory prayer, it's important to note that our wills are not the only ones at play. That may sound strange. You may ask, who would be trying to "stop" my prayer? The original goal in the Garden of Eden was for humanity to rule alongside God in a harmonious, relational capacity, but the freedom to choose the way not of God has led to a world that's anything but harmonious. If every human being has a choice and ability to exercise their free will, it follows that there will be both unity and contradiction at play. As author John Mark Comer puts it: "Some wills are bent in the direction of God the Father, and towards all that is good and beautiful and true. Other of those wills are bent in flat out rebellion against God, and towards death and mayhem and destruction." Comer was deriving his thought from the renowned theologian Augustine in his work "City of God," which was later popularized by Martin Luther, who said that "man turned in on himself." Think of it this way: if some people are inflating a mattress and others are jabbing holes in it, the mattress isn't going to fully inflate. That's not to say that good cannot overcome evil or that it's always a "numbers game", but rather that there are competing forces at play when we engage in intercessory prayer. There's God's will, human will, nature's will, spiritual beings' wills, and beyond. Ultimately God's hands are not tied, and he is the ultimate authority over humans, angels, demons, and spiritual beings. However, as discussed earlier, he allows for other wills to be at play. With free will comes the ability to appeal for both good and evil. Some may hunger for righteousness, while others hunger for violence and personal gain. Make no mistake -- it isn't a "tally" of good votes vs. bad votes, and God is not the president of a democracy. Nor does it mean "the bad guys win" or are stronger than God. The Bible makes it clear that God has the final say and has defeated death, hell, and the grave. The point is that in allowing freedom, God has enabled us to employ choices that either coincide with or contradict His desires and character. As famed theologian C.S. Lewis once said: "Why, then, did God give [us] free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata--of creatures that worked like machines--would hardly be worth creating." We see the necessity of our free will allowing us to make choices that can lead to good and evil, and how that choice enables a relationship that isn't "scripted," automatic, or robotic. It's important to note that in heaven, God's will is done all the time. But on earth, there are times in which human choices lead to destruction and devastation. Think of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, in which neglect from the government led to suffering and sickness from tainted water. Convenience was prioritized over safety, and negative consequences were the result. But it's not always a direct byproduct of observable, human mistakes. In addition to our free will, there are other forces and spiritual beings at play as well. While this isn't intended to be an in-depth exploration into the spiritual realm, it's important to have a baseline understanding of spiritual warfare when we engage in intercessory prayer. The Apostle Paul describes the spiritual "battle" this way in his letter to the church at Ephesus: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Eph. 6:12) Like with any practice or study, it's important to see if there's a Biblical precedent. Do we see examples of oppositional spirits jamming up the works in scripture? In the book of Daniel, it says that the angel coming to help Daniel was "blocked" for 21 days, and needed assistance from another angel, Michael, in order to break through. Before Jesus starts his public ministry, he is tempted by the devil, who tries and fails to derail him off-course. We later see encounters where Jesus drives out demons, and also warns his disciples (when they decry not being able to drive one out) that certain kinds only come out through prayer and fasting. Point being, even Jesus himself encountered both human and spiritual forces that sought to bring down his ministry. As you deepen your knowledge of the spiritual realm, you'll begin to see the litany of other variables at play that have the possibility to disrupt intercessory prayers intended for good and human flourishing.

PRACTICING INTERCESSORY PRAYER

Because the New Testament was originally written in Greek, we get a few variations on when intercession is invoked in scripture. In Romans 8:34, for instance, is the Greek word "ἐντυγχάνω," which refers to Jesus interceding on our behalf. But in Timothy, we see the word ἔντευξις, entailing intercession and petition. 1 Timothy 2 says: "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people." Regardless, the goal behind intercession is to pray on the behalf of others. We see plenty of examples of that playing out, like when Peter was thrown in jail and subsequently released because of the consistent prayers from the church. "So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him." (Acts 12:5) Now that we've unpacked the value, precedent, and ultimate goal of intercessory prayer, how do we actually put it in practice?

1) Use Prayer Cards

When people come to mind to pray for, write their names down and specific areas where you want to see God move in their lives. For instance, if your friend has cancer, praying for your friend might also include praying for their medical team, their family, and everyone involved in supporting them. It might mean specifically praying for the cells in their body to be healed, or for the pain they're feeling from chemo recovery to go away. You don't have to write these requests down in order for them to be heard. God knows you and hears you regardless, so this is more of a practical way to spell things out and keep track of who you're praying for when your brain gets cluttered and overwhelmed.

2) Communal Intercession

We talked about how Moses contended alone for the people of Israel, but there are also plenty of exhortations in scripture that call for us to bear one another's burdens in love and pray together. Both spiritually and practically, there's immense value in joining hands with others and "standing in the gap" for our community around us. Speaking of Moses, there's also an account in scripture where Moses is interceding for the Israelites to win a battle, but every time he lowers his hands, they start losing. His brother and companion, Aaron and Hur, came alongside him to lift up his arms, and the Israelites began winning again. In a similar way, when we grow weary or confused with our intercessory prayers, it's helpful to have people who come alongside us and support us. Not only can others provide encouragement, but they can sometimes help confirm things you've heard from God if they've heard it too. Moreover, they may have certain spiritual gifts that you do not, such as prophecy or discernment.

3) Stay Persistent

This is arguably the hardest part, as it becomes harder to retain hope when the results you desire don't come. Perhaps you've been engaging in intercessory prayer for years. You've been praying for your friend to recover from a drug addiction, yet you continually see relapse. Maybe you've watched your parent's cancer condition worsen despite fearlessly praying for them daily. We first want to acknowledge that this whole process can be emotionally exhausting, and it's okay to feel discouraged. Unfortunately, many in Christian circles adopt a "no pain, no gain mindset" and try to keep it together, thinking that the more they "endure," the more faithful they are. Yet when we read through the Bible, we see countless faithful individuals like David, Job, Thomas, Hannah, Sarah, and beyond pour out their frustration, disappointment, and desire to take matters into their own hands. Being "persistent in prayer" shouldn't and doesn't have to be an aggravating, "white-knuckle it" process. Ask God to help increase your faith, patience, and endurance. Close in a prayer of gratitude and in your own time, journal about the process. What did it feel like? What was challenging about it? What did you learn?

4) Make Space to Listen

This is arguably the hardest part, as it becomes harder to retain hope when the results you desire don't come. Perhaps you've been praying for years for your friend to recover from a drug addiction, yet you continually see relapse. Maybe you've watched your parent's cancer condition worsen despite fearlessly praying for them daily. We first want to acknowledge that this whole process can be emotionally exhausting, and it's okay to feel discouraged. Unfortunately, many in Christian circles adopt a "no pain, no gain mindset" and try to keep it together, thinking that the more they "endure," the more faithful they are. Yet when we read through the Bible, we see countless faithful individuals like David, Job, Thomas, Hannah, Sarah, and beyond pour out their frustration, disappointment, and desire to take matters into their own hands. Being "persistent in prayer" shouldn't and doesn't have to be an aggravating, "white-knuckle it" process. Ask the Holy Spirit to help increase your faith, patience, and endurance. Close in a prayer of gratitude and in your own time, journal about the process. What did it feel like? What was challenging about it? What did you learn?

5) Even If He Doesn't

Going off that last point, a painful, difficult question to answer is: "what if things don't change?" There's a reality in which the outcome we so desperately pray for isn't seen -- or at least isn't lived out in the way we prayed for or expected. It's easy to wonder...why? How do we understand verses like "If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it," (John 14:14 ESV)? Before we answer that question, it's important to sit in the tension of hurt, loss, and hope deferred. As a society, we often don't grieve well. We make quick fixes or move onto the next best thing without sitting in and processing the pain or trauma we just went through. And as for the last question, invoking something in Jesus' name is not like the aforementioned Harry Potter spell. It is living into that authority and relationship that we spoke of earlier, and being confident of God's character and care for us. It's not a blank check, as some have misinterpreted it to be, but rather an ask according to His character and His will. Here's how the disciple and author John sums it up: "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us" (1 John 5:14 NIV). In the meantime, we hope our resources on unanswered prayers can help you wrap your head around questions that may be swimming around your mind. But first, it's still important to give yourself the space and grace to fully experience the weight of your situation. Linking back to where we started in this blog, we must remember that the world's brokenness will not last forever, but still exists at this current moment. Because of that, we will witness both miraculous breakthroughs and heartache. Perhaps there is a deeper purpose and mystery in all of this. Perhaps our vantage point is so limited that we cannot see the deeper purpose in the moment. Jesus' disciples likely felt the same way seeing their teacher and savior nailed to a cross, yet that was the agony Jesus had to pass through in order to bring about deeper salvation. That's not to say it's always so cut & dry or black & white. Sometimes freak accidents happen with seemingly no rhyme or reason. It's okay to admit that we don't know the why behind life's biggest questions. It's okay to struggle and not understand or agree with the way God seemingly answers (or doesn't) answer your prayers. If anything, that's where the heart behind intercession and contending starts in the first place. God wants our raw emotions and longs to know our honest thoughts. To sum it up: intercessory prayer does not guarantee our desired outcome or result, but it does make a difference. Jesus never confirmed that life would be easy ("in this life you will have troubles…") but he does offer hope. ("Take heart, for I have overcome the world.") Essentially, Jesus is saying: "I see your pain. But I am creating a path through that pain that leads to life more abundant. Your pain is not purposeless or pointless if you abide and trust in me." If you can hand over the burden of knowing and understanding everything to God, it will allow you to engage in intercessory prayer without constantly worrying about the "what if…" questions. Be bold. Be honest. Be raw. Be vulnerable. But try not to grow jaded if things unfold differently than your preconceived ideas. Continue interceding with the confidence that God sees you and hears you, and he sees the pains of the world. "You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle.You have recorded each one in your book." - Psalm 56

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