A wife is diagnosed with cancer. A son leaves the Church. A coworker is hospitalized after a collision on the highway. A neighbor loses her job. Millions of people go to sleep with no food, no health care, and no home. Thousands of young women are forced into sex slavery. A nation rejects the right of the unborn to live. An entire population suffers under a tyrant’s rule.
So much of the suffering in the world seems impossible to overcome. And yet Scripture tells us to have hope because what seems impossible to us is possible for God (Luke 18:27). This is precisely why intercessory prayer is so valuable. And this is why we want to look at intercessory prayer this Lent.
The Value of Intercession. Intercession is not the same as worship, spiritual enlightenment, or thanksgiving. It’s not just praying for people who are in need. Intercession is a combination of asking God to enter into a difficult situation and believing that he will resolve it.
Do you want to know how important prayers of intercession are to God? One look at the Lord’s Prayer may be all you need. In that prayer, Jesus taught us to ask for many important things: for people to see God’s glory and worship him; for people to embrace God’s plan; for God to give us our daily bread, to forgive our sins, and to protect us from the evil one. What’s more, according to St. Luke, Jesus followed this prayer with the promise that if we ask, we will receive (Luke 11:9).
Intercession is so valuable that even Jesus prayed this way. At the Last Supper, just hours before he died, he prayed for his apostles and for us: for our protection, for the grace to resist temptation, for our sanctification, and for our unity (John 17:9-21).
Clearly, intercessory prayer is not a second-class spiritual exercise. Especially in a grace-filled season like Lent, intercession can be a powerful weapon against sin and fear among our loved ones and in the world.
Persistence. Persistence is at the heart of intercessory prayer. People who persist get God’s attention. Isn’t this what Jesus taught us through his parable of the persistent friend (Luke 11:5-13)? It was midnight. A neighbor asks for help, but the man does not want to get out of bed. Despite his resistance, the man eventually gets up out of bed and helps his neighbor—because of his neighbor’s persistence. In a similar way, Jesus promises that if we persist in our prayers of intercession, God will answer.
Two other stories from Scripture teach a similar message. One is a parable about a widow who pestered a judge until he granted her demands. Jesus told his listeners that the judge didn’t necessarily decide in her favor because she was right; she was just wearing him out (Luke 18:1-8).
The other story was a real-life encounter Jesus had with a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The woman’s daughter needed healing, but because she was a pagan, Jesus seemed unwilling to help. Despite hearing Jesus refer to her people as dogs, the woman persisted. She would not be denied. Finally, Jesus agreed. “O woman, great is your faith!” he said. “Let it be done for you as you wish” (15:28). These stories are simple but clear: be persistent!
Jesus Intercedes for Us. At the Last Supper, Jesus told the disciples that they would abandon him in his hour of need. Then he turned to Peter and said, “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). He knew Peter would need God’s help after he denied knowing Jesus, and he prayed specifically for that help.
Jesus didn’t pray only for Peter or the apostles. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read that he “lives forever to make intercession” for each of us (7:25). Picture the scene: Jesus, now risen to the glory and beauty of heaven, spends all his time—forever—praying for us. Right now, he is praying for you and for your loved ones.
In a similar way, we who are Catholics were taught at an early age to ask Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” We believe that the Virgin Mary has a special intercessory role in heaven. Like any good mother, she can walk into her son’s room any time and ask for his help. She sees the challenges and wounds and needs of her children, and she continues to pray for them. And like any good mother, she comforts us when we pray for our loved ones. She reassures us that she is with us, praying right alongside us.
Aren’t these comforting truths? Jesus promised that if we ask, we will receive. He promised that if we are persistent in our prayer, we will see God act. And he promises that he will join us, along with his own mother, in praying for all the needs and concerns that we bring to him. We are never alone in our prayers!
God’s Mysterious Will. But we say, “I am persistent. Why do some of my prayers go unanswered?” This is one of the great mysteries of our faith. We know that Jesus loves us. We know that he doesn’t want to see anyone suffer. But we don’t always see answers to our prayers, no matter how well-intentioned and how persistent we may be. The best answer we can offer is that God does answer our prayers, but we don’t always know how or when.
Joe Difato, the publisher of this magazine, is an example of persistence. He has an adult daughter who has been blind since she was four years old. Joe prays regularly for his daughter to be healed. Like any parent, he wants her to see. At the same time, he finds himself resigned to the possibility that his daughter will always be blind. “I believe that Jesus wants to heal my daughter, and I pray for it,” he says. “But she’s still blind. Sometimes I lose hope that my daughter will ever see. Sometimes all I can do is try to persist despite my doubts.”
Forty Days of Prayer. Given our inability to understand fully the mind of God, the only way we can keep moving forward in our faith is by being persistent. The only way forward is to believe that God will answer our prayers according to his wisdom and according to his timing.
So as Lent begins, why not put together a prayer list of your own? Think of the people you know who are hurting, whether physically or spiritually. Think of one or two situations in the world that most draw your attention—perhaps the unrest in the Middle East, the scourge of abortion, the famine in Central Africa, or the poverty in Latin America—and add them to your list. Then look at the list every day and pray for these needs.
May we all “pray without ceasing” this Lent (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Who knows? Maybe on Easter Sunday, God will give us a special answer to one of our most deeply held prayers for someone on our list!