The Mystery of Intercession
Fasting, intercession, and unanswered prayers.
Nearly 130 years ago, in March of 1887, a petty thief named Henri Pranzini brutally murdered three women in Paris. The graphic nature of the crime, coupled with the fact that one of the victims was a high-priced call girl, made the investigation a big news item throughout France. The trial took only four days, and Pranzini was found guilty and sentenced to death by guillotine.
Throughout the proceedings, Pranzini showed no sign of remorse, a fact that caught the attention of a young girl more than one hundred miles away. She was so moved by the thought that this criminal might die without having repented that she decided to fast and pray for his conversion. “I wanted at all costs to keep him from falling into hell, and to succeed I employed all means imaginable, feeling that of myself I could do nothing. I offered to God all the infinite merits of Our Lord.”
On the day of the execution, something amazing happened. As Pranzini approached the scaffold, he turned to the chaplain accompanying him, asked for a crucifix, and kissed it three times. Then he was executed.
The next day, the young girl read the news of Pranzini’s act of penance, and she was ecstatic. “My prayer was granted to the letter,” she wrote. The girl, Thérèse of Lisieux, eventually entered the convent, developed a deep prayer life, was canonized, and was later named a Doctor of the Church.
“My First Child.” Were Thérèse’s prayers and fasting instrumental in Pranzini’s conversion? She certainly thought so. Her experience with Pranzini convinced her to intercede for people who were in need of God’s intervention. As she put it, Pranzini was her “first child,” the first of many who were blessed by her intercession.
Thérèse shows us that intercessory prayer is not meant only for ourselves or for those especially difficult moments. It ought to be a regular part of our walk with the Lord. Every day we can intercede for our spouse, our family, our Church, and our world. So let’s commit to praying for other people’s needs every day. Let’s believe that no petition is too small or too unworthy. And let’s take up the ancient practice of fasting as we lift up our petitions—just as Jesus did and just as Thérèse did.
Fasting and Intercession. Fasting and intercession have always been intimately linked. Moses fasted for forty days before he received the Law (Exodus 34:28). Hannah fasted as she begged God to give her a child (1 Samuel 1:7-8). Jesus himself fasted before beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2). The elders of the Church were fasting and praying when the Holy Spirit told them to set aside Paul and Barnabas for their first missionary trip (Acts 13:1-2).
Fasting is a beautiful part of our spiritual heritage. It humbles us and teaches us to be more dependent on God. It teaches us that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). By freely choosing to deny ourselves, we are declaring, “I want to be more open to the Lord.” We are saying that we don’t want to find our satisfaction in just food or entertainment; we want to find joy in God’s presence and to be guided by his wisdom and his provision.
When we combine fasting with intercession, we are emptying ourselves of our own ideas and opening ourselves more fully to seeing a situation or problem from God’s perspective. Fasting makes us more pliable and less self-oriented so that God can guide us and use us.
So how exactly does fasting affect the people we are praying for? We don’t fully understand it, but it does. Jesus told his disciples, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face. . . . And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Matthew 6:17, 18). It seems that God rewards our fasting by pouring his blessings on the people we are interceding for.
Think about how moving it is to see someone make a sacrifice for another person. It softens your heart and inspires you to be generous as well. It’s similar with God. It is as if he sees our fasting and says, “I am so pleased that you are making this sacrifice out of love. How can I not bless the one you are praying for?”
There is another reason why we should combine fasting with intercession. Recall the story about how the apostles were unable to deliver a young man from a demon. Jesus told them, ”This kind can only come out through prayer” (Mark 9:29). Likewise, there are some needs—serious sickness, unemployment, broken relationships, mortal sins—that call for both prayer and fasting. Either the situation is so desperate that we need to take desperate measures, or it is so complex that we need to make ourselves more open so that God can teach us and use us.
Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers? There is still one question we need to look at as we answer the call to intercessory prayer: What about prayers that never seem to get answered? Related to this are other age-old questions: Why is there so much suffering in the world, especially among those who are trying to obey the Lord? Why does God let good people die young? Why does he not intervene and stop all the abortions or put an end to war and genocide? Are our prayers so weak that they cannot even help put an end to things that everyone agrees are wrong and evil? If it’s any comfort, we can read passages like Psalm 13 and Habakkuk 1:1-3 to find examples of how even the holiest of people—prophets and psalmists—puzzled over these questions.
Frankly, there is no simple answer to these questions. But admitting that this is a mystery shouldn’t lead us to conclude that intercessory prayer is useless. It shouldn’t make us think that God is too remote to care about us. God would not have sent his Son to die for us if he didn’t care.
Countless saints and biblical stories tell us that we should always pray when we face challenging situations. But they also tell us that our prayer should not be limited to asking God to take away the problem or to demanding the solution that we think is the best one. Rather, in our intercessions, we should ask the Holy Spirit to help us stay open to the mystery of the way he is at work in the situations we are lifting up.
The Mystery of God’s Will. In everyday language, the word “mystery” usually means a riddle that needs to be solved, as in a crime novel or a crossword puzzle. But this isn’t the kind of mystery the Bible talks about. In the Scriptures, the word “mystery” speaks about God’s eternal plan of salvation, a plan so vast that we cannot possibly grasp all of it. And that means that sometimes we will just have to trust God as a child trusts his father and know that he is working out all things for our good (Romans 8:28).
So when we face a trying situation or dilemma, we should pray. And if a solution does not come right away, we should keep praying, as the persistent widow did. We should also feel free to tell God honestly how we feel, even if we are feeling angry or discouraged. But at the same time, we should never limit God or tell him how he should intervene! Sometimes we just have to repeat the words of the frustrated psalmist who said, “I trust in your mercy” (Psalm 13:6).
Changing Lives through Intercession. In all of our intercessions, be they for the sick, for an end to war or abortion, for the Church, or for our loved ones to come to know the Lord, we should be careful to guard against anxiety. We should try to follow St. Paul’s exhortation: “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God,” because as we do, “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6, 7).
As hard as it can be to believe at times, our prayers of intercession can change lives, just as Thérèse’s intercession changed Pranzini at the last minute. It may not be exactly as we would wish, but whenever God’s people turn to him in prayer, he works marvels. So never go a day without lifting up the needs that are on your heart, both the large global crises and the small personal ones. He is a loving God, and he will hear and answer us.