In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. (Philippians 4:6)
Effective intercession does not depend on the holiness or maturity of the people praying. It may help, but it is no guarantee. Much more important are virtues like sincerity, humility, and persistence—virtues that we can all take up. As we said in our first article, God wants us to come to him with all that we are. It doesn’t matter if our faith is mature or immature, if we are newly converted or have been running the race for years. God promises to all of us: “When you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me” (Jeremiah 29:13-14). This is the kind of sincerity and persistence that brings us into God’s presence and releases his grace in our lives and in the lives of the people we are praying for.
When Mitch was told that he had colon cancer, he sought out his pastor and some members of his parish prayer group and asked them to pray with him for healing. After six ten-minute sessions of prayer—along with one day of fasting a week—Mitch returned to the hospital for more tests. Amazingly, his cancer levels were reduced to zero.
Of course, Mitch was undergoing a course of chemotherapy at the same time as he was receiving prayer. He had also made significant changes to his diet, under the supervision of his doctor. So we will never know for sure exactly what caused such a dramatic turnaround. However, Mitch’s doctor was both excited and surprised by these test results. He said it was very rare to see such a drastic shift. Now, thirteen years later, Mitch credits the power of God with his healing, and he eagerly shares his story with anyone he knows who has been affected by cancer.
Fasting and Intercession. Throughout Scripture and in the history of the Church, fasting and intercession have been intimately linked to each other. Over and over again, people fasted when they wanted God’s help. Hannah fasted as she begged God for a child (1 Samuel 1:7-8). Nehemiah fasted for the restoration of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:4). The city of Nineveh fasted in response to Jonah’s call to repent (Jonah 3:5). Daniel fasted as he prayed for insight from the Lord (Daniel 9:3). Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast prior to a battle (2 Chronicles 20:3). St. Paul fasted after his conversion (Acts 9:8-9). The elders of the church at Antioch fasted and prayed for Paul and Barnabas as they embarked on their first missionary trip (Acts 13:1-2). Even Jesus fasted before beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2).
Logically, there is no reason why fasting should lead to an outpouring of grace, but it does. We know that God honors and blesses all of our efforts to love one another—and fasting is one of those efforts. That is why Jesus promised, “When you fast, . . . your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Matthew 6:17, 18). He is telling us that God will reward our fasting by pouring out his blessings on the people we are interceding for.
This is not surprising. Think about how your heart is moved when you see someone make a sacrifice for another person. It makes you want to be generous as well. It’s similar with God, but even more so. When he sees us fasting for another person, it’s as if he says, “I am so pleased that you are making such a sacrifice. How can I keep from blessing you and the one you are praying for?”
Look for Breakthroughs. When a child finally masters a concept in math class, the teacher will say he had a breakthrough. When a scientist discovers a new cancer therapy after years of research, it’s called a breakthrough. And when we devote months and months to praying for someone and finally see that person’s life change, that too is a breakthrough. We should not give up hope; breakthroughs are always possible.
When we fast, we are saying, “Lord, I am resolved to do whatever it takes to achieve a breakthrough for this situation, but I need your help.” Our fasting won’t force God to do something. But fasting is a way of opening the door and asking God to move in miraculous ways.
So if you have a specific need or an important decision to make, consider turning to the Lord with fasting and prayer. If you are relatively new to this discipline, begin slowly. Consider giving up just one meal and spending the time in intercession instead. Maybe try this once a week, and then slowly build up to a more rigorous fast. But always be careful to gauge your health and your energy. The goal, of course, is not to lose weight. Neither is it to prove yourself to God. It’s simply to make yourself more available to the Lord.
The Mystery of God’s Will. There is one question we still need to answer as we look at the call to intercessory prayer: what about prayers that never seem to get answered? Related to this is the age-old question that even shows up at various points in the Bible: why is there so much suffering in the world—especially among those who are trying to follow the Lord? Why does God let good people die young? Why does he not intervene and put an end to abortion or war or genocide? We can look at passages like Psalm 13 and Habakkuk 1:1-3 for examples of how even the holiest of people—prophets and psalmists—puzzled over these questions.
It’s safe to say that there is no simple answer. If there were, people wouldn’t still be asking those questions so persistently. But even as we admit that there is a mystery here, we should not conclude that intercessory prayer is useless—or worse, that God is too remote to care about us. He wouldn’t have sent his Son to die for us if he didn’t care.
The witness of countless saints and biblical heroes tells us that we should always pray when we face a difficult situation. But it tells us also that our prayer should not be limited to asking God to take away the problem or demanding the solution that we think is the best one. Rather, we should also ask God to help us be open to his will and to the mystery of the way he is at work among us.
In our world, 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 we mean here. Mystery here speaks about God’s eternal, all-encompassing plan and purpose. It has to do with a plan that is so vast that we cannot possibly grasp it in its fullness. It’s something that we will never figure out—but something that God can reveal to us, a little bit at a time.
So when you face a dilemma or a trying situation, keep praying for a solution. But also ask God to shed some light on the mystery behind this situation and to give you the grace to embrace his plan. Always try to keep your heart open to the Lord. Take heart from the Scriptures too as you repeat the words of the frustrated psalmist: “I trust in your mercy” (Psalm 13:6).
May we never limit God or tell him exactly how he should intervene! Of course, we should feel free to tell him honestly how we feel about a situation—even to tell him what we wish he would do for us. But we should always make our prayers with the humility of children, acknowledging that our vision is clouded and our knowledge is limited. It won’t be until we are with the Lord in heaven that we will see the whole picture and understand exactly how “all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). In the meantime, our best response is to pray fervently and to try our best to follow the Lord and live in his love.
Prayer Changes People. So try to set aside time every day to offer up prayers of intercession. Pray for whatever burdens are on your heart. Don’t be afraid to go to Jesus and say, “Lord, pour out your grace into this situation.” And don’t let discouragement keep you from persisting. Instead, follow St. Paul’s exhortation: “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
As we “stand in” for others and intercede, our Father will work powerfully among us. As incomprehensible as it sounds, we can change people’s lives with our prayers. It may not be exactly as we would wish, but whenever God’s people turn to him in prayer, he works marvels. May God bless you and all of your prayers of intercession.