I want to talk about a kind of prayer that you likely think of when you think of praying. If your cynicism or disappointment or pain has contributed to your lack of willingness to keep praying, you probably are primarily framing prayer this way. We call it “intercession.” It literally means meeting, meeting with God, a bridge over a gap between persons. It’s the prayer we pray for others.
I prayed for you this week. At the end of my cell meeting, Amy led us to pray, and she mentioned everyone in the room and even those who weren’t there by name. I prayed this week for the School District of Philadelphia and the contract negotiations between the School Reform Commission and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. I prayed for City Council, and that they would hold a hearing for our land bank bill. I prayed for Syrians this week and for the looming conflict in the Middle East, I was praying for peace (and God heard me!). I prayed for people personally who were suffering that God would comfort them and heal them and shed light on them, too.
I believe that when I ask God to hear my prayer, He does hear it and He responds to me. I think God is moved by me and my praying. I think He cares about me and what I’m saying. I think he loves me and he wants to responds.
But of course, there’s always a discussion among Christians, or people who aren’t Christians (who I think pray too), about intercession. How does it work? If I ask for something, do I get it? Why does that work? What happens if it doesn’t work? What does that say about me? What does that say about God? And certainly, if God is unchanging—he if he the “unmoved mover” as Aristotle called Him—why am I trying to change Him? I don’t know anything, why am I trying to lead God. Shouldn’t it just be the other way around? And if you say it’s just about changing me, why am I bothering to change anyone else?
I love trying to work with these questions. They are good ones. They are relevant. They mean something. The people asking them mean something—and are often tormented by their mysterious answers. I think it’s important to try and answer the questions, because I want to encourage us to keep wondering, pondering, and journeying together. If we don’t allow people to ask the normal, human questions that anyone would ask when we’re talking about such a topic, then it’s no wonder people are losing their faith in Jesus altogether. Jesus-followers just gave them pre-packaged answers to deeply personal questions.
I like trying to answer these questions, like I said. But I don’t presume to have a successful answer. I suppose I don’t pray because I know how it works. When it comes to the mysteries of intercessory prayer, I don’t do it because I “get it.”
Prayer doesn’t work like the Apple Store did this week. I went made an appointment with one of their so-called geniuses, and went to the store, told them the problem with my phone, and they gave me a new one. I left with everything fixed. I think I’d keep praying if it were that easy and that predictable.
But I want to keep talking about it. I have two simple reasons why I keep praying for you and others each day. I’ll give you my first one today.
The first reason that I do it is because Jesus does it. I believe in interceding for you because Jesus does. I have a relationship with Jesus and I got into it through His work, and the work of his disciples—his disciples made it all the way to Pennsylvania and I started followed Him.
And so subsequently, I follow Jesus. I follow Jesus and try to the things He’s doing, instead of just making it up as I go along—like many people do. I suppose it’s simple enough for me: I pray for others, because Jesus did. And when I look to how Jesus does it, I learn too.
The truth is that I don’t know every metaphysical mystery in the world around me. But I start with what Jesus is doing and I try to follow Him—if that seems pedestrian or elementary, that’s probably because it is. But I’m going to start there—that’s the basis for my life.
Jesus prayed for Peter and he does right before Peter betrays him and denies him. He prays for Peter to keep his faith and to lead the other disciples and amazingly, it doesn’t seem to work the way that we thought it might.
Jesus then prays for those who crucified him. He’s praying for God to forgive them, and really, praying for them to ask God for forgiveness too.
And then he prays for us in the Farewell Discourse in this great prayer in John, he prays for future disciples (that’s us, again). He’s praying for destiny and eternity and the world redemption project. And if you look at us in Circle of Hope, you might then, well, that prayer ‘worked.’ On the other hand, if you look at lots of other places in the world, well, you might think, well it’s not so much. I think Jesus actually shows us how to pray for others here, and he is doing so, not just because it works like Apple Store does, but because it’s a relational complicated thing.
For me, the biggest example of Jesus praying is when Paul describes it in Romans. He is still interceding for us. He’s praying for God, whom he is apart and fully, to move in our lives. If you ponder that for a while, you might begin to approach the mystery of prayer. How the prayer itself isn’t done necessarily to get what we want, and even when Jesus prays, it doesn’t work out so mathematically. Institutions, agencies, nation-states, powers that be, and individuals are all free to make choices that they do, it seems to me, from the examples of Jesus. For me, it’s about praying that God keeps moving their lives. So that’s what I’m working with—if Jesus believes in it, I want to too.
Thanks to Rod for his inspiration and influence on this post.