Some time in the 1930s, a young Polish woman wrote in her diary about a lesson she had learned about praying for people. “Such a beautiful little soul before the Lord,” she wrote about someone, “and yet, great darkness had come over her, and she did not know how to help herself.
She had a dark view of everything. The good God entrusted her to my care, and for two weeks I was able to work with her. But how many sacrifices this soul cost me is known only to God. For no other soul did I bring so many sacrifices and sufferings and prayers before the throne of God as I did for her soul. I felt that I had forced God to grant her grace. When I reflect on all this, I see that it was truly a miracle. Now I can see how much power intercessory prayer has before God.”
That woman was St. Faustina Kowalska, and the “beautiful little soul” she prayed for so fervently was her sister, Wanda. Faustina was so concerned for her that she threw herself into intercession for her—and what a wonder it was to see her prayers answered!
What is it about intercessory prayer that makes us so eager to do it, even when, like Faustina, we suspect that our prayers won’t have much impact? We offer to pray for someone, but more often than not, we forget to pray. It becomes more like a polite way to wish someone well instead of a commitment to “force God” to grant our petitions. In this month’s issue, we want to look at the blessings that come when we offer our prayers and petitions to the Lord in faith and confidence. We want to see how God looks on our prayers and how he acts when we bring our needs and concerns before him. Let’s begin by looking at some scriptural stories about intercessory prayer.
Pray for One Another. In one sense, we can say that Jesus spent his entire life interceding for people. If he wasn’t directly asking his Father to protect and bless us (John 17:9, 20), he was praying for his disciples (Luke 22:31-32) or asking his Father to forgive someone (23:34). When he wasn’t groaning in prayer for someone’s healing (Mark 7:33-34), he was acknowledging that his Father always heard his prayers (John 11:41-42). Ultimately, Jesus’ life of intercession reached its climax when he died on the cross as an offering for our sin. Even now, enthroned in glory, Jesus “lives forever to make intercession” for each and every one of us (Hebrews 7:25).
In the early Church, people followed Jesus’ example by praying for each other. For example, just before he died, Stephen asked the Father to forgive the people who were stoning him to death (Acts 7:60). Epaphras, a leader in the Colossian church and a “minister of Christ,” was described as “always striving for you in his prayers so that you may be perfect” (Colossians 1:7; 4:12). The first believers prayed for Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:5), for safe travel (13:2-3), for God’s protection over the Church, and for the grace to evangelize (Ephesians 6:18-20). They prayed for healing (James 5:14-15) and for spiritual maturity and wisdom (Ephesians 1:16-17).
St. James also wrote about the need for intercessory prayer. He urged the elders of the Church, along with everyone else, to “pray for one another” because he believed that “the fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (James 5:16). Everyone, it seems, lived out Paul’s exhortation: “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Doing Our Part. Now, we can be sure that James wasn’t concerned only about intercessory prayer. His letter is filled with other exhortations as well: to love our neighbor as ourselves, to avoid partiality, to guard our tongues, to resist the devil, and many more. He didn’t expect people to just sit back and pray for all challenges to disappear. We have to do our part. But for all the things that we should do, intercession is different. When we pray for someone, we are assuming a kind of spiritual responsibility for that person. We are asking God to move and act powerfully in that person’s life. We are approaching the throne of our heavenly Father and trying to sway him to intervene.
Of course, intercessory prayer has a human side—especially when we are praying not just for someone but also with them. Joining hands with the person or placing a hand on their shoulder or simply bowing our heads together—all of these gestures communicate love and concern. Studies have shown that interactions like these can play a significant role in healing, whether it’s relieving physical suffering, comforting a troubled soul, or giving courage to someone bound in fear.
Standing in the Gap. We can see an image of this combination of our work and God’s work, of what we need to do and the power of prayer, in the story of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was an exiled Jew who had become a member of the court of King Artaxerxes of Persia. After receiving permission from his king to help his fellow Jews rebuild the decimated city of Jerusalem, Nehemiah set off for his ancestors’ home.
Nehemiah arrived at a city lying in ruins with a people living in despair. Sharing how God had helped him return to help rebuild the city, Nehemiah rallied the people to take up the monumental task of repairing the city’s walls. Everyone got involved!
However, it wasn’t long before some people from neighboring countries saw the work and began to make trouble for the people—to the point of plotting an attack on them. Getting wind of this, Nehemiah instructed the people to keep building, but he also told the soldiers who were helping to hold a sword in one hand as they continued building with the other: “Thus we went on with the work, half with spears in hand, from daybreak till the stars came out” (Nehemiah 4:15).
This image of standing in the gap while also being prepared to defend the city can give us an idea of what intercessory prayer can be like. Gaps and holes in the city wall made Jerusalem vulnerable, so warriors stood in the gap, ready to repel their enemies.
Because it is made up of sinful people like us, our Church will always have weak spots in its walls. So will our families and friends. This means that there will always be a need for people to stand in the gap and pray against the power of sin, temptation, and evil spirits.
An Advocate Who Understands. While we are standing in the gap through intercession, it’s helpful to know that we have someone in heaven interceding for us as well. That heavenly intercessor is Jesus, who “lives forever to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25). He is always with us, praying that we will “find grace for timely help” that we need (4:16).
Jesus sympathizes with our struggles and our weaknesses. He knows what we are feeling because he experienced the same kind of testing, tempting, and suffering that we face. That’s why the Scriptures call him our great high priest.
So if you are praying for someone who is struggling with a particular sin or if you are praying for someone who is enduring some sickness or tragedy, know this: Jesus is praying right alongside you. Each day, he brings your loved ones, with all of their imperfections and needs, to the Father, asking him to pour out all the grace that they need for that day.
Persist in Prayer! Imagine if everyone reading this article were to commit to intercessory prayer every day. Surely we would see more of our prayers answered. Persistence in intercession, trust in God, and a Church filled with intercessors can make a real difference.
May we follow Faustina’s example. May we stand in the gap and pray with the same kind of fervor and sacrifice that “force” God to do the miraculous. And may we never forget that, in Jesus, we have a perfect advocate who will never abandon us.