I pray . . . for those who will believe in me through their word. (John 17:9, 20)
Jesus spoke these simple words on the night before he died. He was sharing a Passover meal with his disciples, and just before going out to the Garden of Gethsemane, he turned to his Father in prayer.
On the face of it, there is nothing particularly striking about Jesus praying. He was constantly at prayer. He always stayed close to his Father so that he could remain open to his Father’s will and confident in his Father’s love. What is striking is how he prayed. He prayed for his disciples—and he prayed for each one of us!
We don’t often think about Jesus as offering prayers of intercession. After all, he and his Father are one. So if he knew God’s will so completely, why would he feel the need to petition his Father for our sake?
This is the mystery of intercessory prayer. On the one hand, we believe that God knows all things and has a perfect plan for us, so there is no need for him to change his mind. But on the other hand, even Jesus used intercession to ask his Father to act in a certain way. This month, we want to explore this mystery. We want to see how our prayers of intercession can become just as powerful and effective as Jesus’ prayers—and why we need to pray for people.
Jesus: Our Mediator. In ancient Israel, it was the role of the priest to mediate and intercede for the people. He was to stand in, or intervene, before God on behalf of the people. The priest performed his duties by offering various sacrifices as a means of atonement and intercession (Ezekiel 44:15-16).
Then, in the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be” (9:11). It tells us that Jesus “entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (9:12). Jesus fulfilled the work of the Old Testament priests, and now he sits at the right hand of God, where he “lives forever to make intercession” for us (7:25).
Where once there were merely human priests, now Jesus, the Son of God, intercedes for us. Now seated at his Father’s right hand, he brings us, with all of our sins and needs, before God. Just as an effective advocate mediates for his client, Jesus stands beside us and pleads our case. Because he is always with us, we should never be afraid to bring our needs to God. His presence tells us that we can approach the throne of God with confidence and pour out our hearts. And if we do, we’ll “receive mercy and . . . find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:16).
As Little Children. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11). With this little parable, he is telling us to bring our needs before God just as little children bring their needs to their parents. Children bring everything to Mom and Dad: scraped knees, sore throats, homework troubles, and friendship troubles. In the same way, Jesus invites us to bring all of our needs to our Father. We don’t have to hold back. We don’t have to think that our requests are too small for God to care about.
You may have heard the old saying, “Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.” Isn’t that the way little children think and act? As much as children try to resolve problems on their own, they run to their parents for help when things get too complicated for them. As parents, we know that if they rely on themselves too much, they may hit a dead end or miss out on some good solutions. That’s why we try to help them. At the same time, we know that if our children become too dependent on us, they won’t learn how to grow up.
Similarly, God gave us many gifts—intelligence, reasoning, imagination, and intuition—so that we could learn how to think and act on our own. He gave us these gifts because he wants us to try to resolve the challenges we face in life. But at the same time, he wants us to bring these issues to him so that he can offer us his help and guidance. Sometimes he will make everything right. At other times he will let us work through the problem so that we can grow and mature.
Let’s say, for example, that you need a new job. Of course you should ask God for help. But you still have to fill out job applications, put together your résumé, and go on interviews. The blessing of intercession is that because you have invited God into the process, you can do all these things with greater peace and confidence. You know that God is with you and that he will help you and guide you along the way.
With Trust. There is more to intercession than simply stating our needs and waiting for God to work. At its core, intercession is an act of faith. It’s an act of trust that the One we are praying to is all-loving and all-powerful.
Trust means that we believe that God has the power to answer all of our prayers in his wisdom and according to his love and providence. It means that we believe that God wants to give us good things—in every form and in every way. It means that we trust that our Father would never forget his children.
We may never understand why our prayers of intercession sometimes seem to go unanswered. That’s part of the reason why Scripture speaks about the “mystery” concerning God’s eternal plan of salvation. His plan is so vast that it’s impossible for us to fully grasp its height, length, and depth.
Sometimes we simply have to trust God as a child trusts his father. We just have to believe that God is working out all things for our good (Romans 8:28). “Mystery” about our unanswered prayers should never be confused with indifference, rejection, or a lack of love on God’s part.
In Faith. When Susan was diagnosed with cancer, she was at a stage in her life when her faith was at a low point. Some people in her parish offered to pray with her, and as they did, they reinforced for her some simple, basic truths of faith: God is alive, he loves us, and he knows what is going on in our lives. All the love and prayers Susan received helped her faith to grow stronger. She became less anxious as she continued to battle the disease.
Susan also grew stronger physically during this time. Today, twenty years later, even though her cancer has returned twice and she is now in remission, Susan is a much happier, more peaceful person. And it all started when a few people reached out to her when she was sick.
We don’t need heroic faith if we want to see our prayers answered. But we do need to have faith, and we do need to bring that faith with us when we pray. It’s vital, in fact, that we use all the faith we have—no matter how much that is. When we seek the Lord with everything we have, according to the full level of our faith, God will meet us there and hear our prayers.
God always wants us to choose faith, trust, and confidence over worry, doubt, and fear. Of course, there are times when this will be difficult, but always remember this: faith is a gift from God. It’s not something that we conjure up ourselves. It’s a powerful grace that can help us cope with the difficulties of life. That means we can bring our prayers of intercession to the Lord, leave them at his feet, and trust that he will gather them up and hold them close to his heart.
Let’s Get Started. Intercessory prayer is not meant for just the toughest problems we face. We should feel free to pray for our spouse and family every day. We should pray for the needs of the world every day. We should pray for our friends and neighbors. This is what Jesus told us to do when he taught us to pray for our daily bread and to be delivered from evil. So begin today. Put together a list of intercessory prayers, and persist in praying for these needs every day. There is no petition that is too small or too unworthy.