Intercessory Prayer

By Jan Alkire

A neighbor asks me to pray for him during his upcoming surgery. A group gathers each month to pray for their faith community. A friend who is traveling comes to mind, so I offer a quick prayer for her safety. Each of these is intercessory prayer: We pray for others and others pray for us, asking God to meet our needs. It is a blessing and an opportunity for the Body of Christ to minister to one another in ways that exceed human strength.

The Value of Intercessory Prayer

Acts 12:6–19 tells us how Peter was set free from prison by an angel who released him from chains and led him out of prison. When he then went to the home of the mother of John Mark, he discovered that “many people had gathered and were praying.” Would Peter‘s freedom have occurred without the prayers of his faith community? We cannot know for sure, but Luke apparently saw a connection in these two events because he included the faith community in his account of this miracle.

Intercessory Prayer

Intercessory Prayer Still Yields Amazing Results in Our Own Time. Why?

  1. It increases God’s protection. Peter’s release from prison was a dramatic instance of God’s protection. Usually it is more subtle: a safe journey, a medical test that turns out fine, an attitude change in a teenager–events like these give us a felt experience of 1 Jn 4:4: “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” In other words, we need not fear the power that is in this world; God’s power is even stronger. The prayers of the Body of Christ help bring divine protection into our lives and the lives of those for whom we pray.
  2. It removes feelings of aloneness. People sometimes say they can feel the prayers of others. What is that experience like? It may be a peace that comes from an awareness that others are praying. Once, after major surgery, I felt that I was being rocked in a hammock of prayer, surrounded by the gentle prayers of friends, family and members of my faith community.
  3. It strengthens us to do what God is calling us to do. Whether it’s in our role as family members, as Christians engaged in ministry, as wage earners, or simply as members of society, we need a strength that exceeds our own power. Intercessory prayer opens the gate to God’s power.
  4. It builds our relationship with God and increases our faith. When the sun is shining and life is rolling along, the need for God can seem dim, and it’s easy for our relationship with the Lord to slip into the background. When hanging from a cliff by our fingernails, however, our eyes suddenly become riveted on the One with the power to save us. Over time, what starts as “Help!” can grow into “I love you, my Lord and my God.”

“Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1)

Entire books explore how to do intercessory prayer. Here are some essentials:

  1. Present needs to God. This may be the hardest aspect of intercessory prayer: releasing our needs into God’s hands. A loved one is sick, a family member is on drugs, a job is in jeopardy–however big or small the concern, Jesus is present as Savior. Like Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the Temple, we offer our concerns, worries and needs to God, whose love and power exceed all imagination.
  2. Pray simply. Multiplying words does not multiply their effectiveness. When Jesus changed water into wine at his mother’s request, her request was five words long: “They have no more wine” (Jn 2:3). I have a friend who experienced pain relief after his young child placed her hand on his back and said, ‘Jesus, heal Daddy‘s back.”
  3. Pray from the heart. Love and compassion were the essence of Jesus‘ ministry 2,000 years ago, and they need to be the essence of our prayers for others. “Without love, I am nothing,” said St. Paul (1 Cor 13:2b), and this holds true for intercessory prayer. What if we do not have much love for the person we’re praying for? We can ask for God‘s love: “Lord, give me your love and compassion for this person.” In time, most people discover that the act of praying yields an increase in love.
  4. Pray with patient endurance. According to Dr. Larry Dossey in Healing Words, medical studies show that the quantity of prayer influences the outcome in healing. So praying once for a need will not be as effective as praying once a day for, say, a month. In other words, do not give up! Keep on praying.
  5. Pray in whatever way works best. To keep intercessory prayer from being mechanical and boring, it helps to do what works best for us, and vary the way we do it. Some options:
    Use our own words–whatever we feel like saying, however we feel like saying it.
    Repetitive prayer, e.g., Lord’s Prayer, the rosary, litanies.
    Scripture passages, especially ones related to a need, e.g., Lk 8:43–48.
    Contemplative prayer (i.e., praying without words).
    Prayers of praise. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6)
    Put requests in a notebook,
    then set it before the Lord in prayer.
    Gather with others to pray. This is an especially powerful option for intercessory prayer. It supports us in faith and can heighten our awareness of the Risen Lord‘s presence with us. Confidentiality is essential in this setting: Whatever is said and prayed within the room, stays in that room.
  6. Avoid Pitfalls: Most intercessors eventually discover challenges with this form of prayer.
    Two common pitfalls:
    Telling God what to do. This may take the form of “claiming the promise” of a Scripture passage, or saying a special prayer for so many days, or simply storming heaven for a specific result. (“Lord, make my son go to an AA meeting this week.”) Whatever the form, when we tell God what to do, we treat the Creator of the universe like a personal valet, ready to respond to every request in precisely the way we want him to respond. “All things are possible with God,” Jesus told his disciples. True! That is why when we pray for a need, we can leave results up to the Lord of possibilities, who sees and knows more than we can ever see and know.
    Focusing on Power Rather than Love. Power-oriented prayers may involve raised voices. (“Jesus, HEAL Sue’s husband!”) They also may center mostly around deliverance prayers, where intercessors end up paying less attention to God than they do to binding and casting out evil spirits. However we choose to pray, our primary focus needs to remain on God, not on Satan.

Options for Reaching Out to Intercessors with Our Needs

  1. Prayer Chains. Prayer chains exist in many faith communities ministry groups, parishes, congregations, etc.–as sources of love and support. In most cases, the “chain” of communication is by e–mail or phone. Here again, confidentiality is essential. Without it, a prayer chain risks becoming a group of gossips, not intercessors.
  2. Person-to-Person Contact. Any brother or sister in Christ we can turn to with our concerns is a treasure. S/he supports us, gives us confidence, and helps us stay close to God. Who are these special people? Spiritual companions, relatives, faith community members, friends–anyone with whom we share a relationship with the Lord and who is able to maintain confidentiality. However we choose to communicate with intercessors, one additional item is vital: After asking them to pray for a need, communicating results to them will help them continue praying for us.

The Gift of Intercessory Prayer.

Intercessory prayer is a gift that helps bring God‘s power into people‘s lives. What happens when we use the gift either as an intercessor, or as a recipient of others prayers for us? Here is how one seasoned intercessor experiences it:

Intercessory Prayer:

…puts us in good company
…shows us the face of Jesus
…makes us one
…can heal the intercessor
…instructs us
…is strengthened by God’s response
…is creative mystery
…has no limits

Thank you, God of heaven and earth, for this great gift.