The mission of the church is summed up in Jesus’ final words to his disciples: “Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It’s a theme that St. Paul takes up when he tells the Corinthians, “The love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
We know that the goal of evangelization is to draw people to Jesus—whether those who have no faith or those for whom the flame of faith has been reduced to just a flicker. This could include our children who have left the church, our friends who are indifferent to God, or even unbelieving strangers we may meet on the bus or at the local market. In all these situations, we think about how we might share our faith with them, serve them in the name of the Lord, or reach out to them in some other way with the good news of salvation.
One of the best ways to help bring people closer to Christ is through the prayer of intercession. Intercessory prayer helps us see people and their needs with “spiritual eyes.” What’s more, because it brings us before the throne of God, it also increases our own faith. So not only are the people we pray for blessed; so are we!
Approach with Confidence. Who can forget the way St. Monica prayed for her son Augustine? We often think that it was the words of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, that won Augustine over. Or we think of the day when he heard a strange voice urging him to take up and read the Scriptures. But we have to ask how much of this would have mattered to Augustine if his mother had not been praying constantly for him to have an open heart. Surely her intercession for her son played a significant role.
In a similar way, there are many in our day who, like Augustine, are unable to pray for themselves. Whether for emotional reasons or due to a lack of faith or a bitterness against God, they simply can’t bring themselves to turn to the Lord and ask him to help them. We can cry out for these wounded and weary ones, asking God to open doors in their hearts that they may not even know exist.
Consider, too, that as children of God we have the promise that we can come before him at any time and make our prayers and our needs known. As the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us, each of us can “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace” (Hebrews 4:16). This means that we can do the very thing that Bartimaeus and the sinful woman and the others did two thousand years ago when they cried out to the Lord and persisted until they were standing right before him, ready to receive his love and his salvation.
The Power of Prayer. So what does intercessory prayer accomplish? A lot! Through our prayer, we can help demolish the spiritual “fortresses” that are built up in people’s minds by false arguments against the Lord and by our own human pretensions and pride (2 Corinthians 10:4). Our prayer can help bring God’s healing power to the sick (James 5:14). It can help strengthen people against the devil’s temptations (Luke 22:31-32). It can fill people with spiritual wisdom and understanding (Colossians 1:9). It can even turn back armies (Isaiah 37)!
It may seem fanciful to include needs like these in our prayer, but we should never minimize the power of God—or the power of our own intercessions! The Letter of James tells us, in fact, that “the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (James 5:16). In the Book of Revelation, there is a beautiful image of golden bowls filled with incense, “which are the prayers of the holy ones” (Revelation 5:8). This image gives us a sense of how valuable our prayers of intercession are. It tells us that when we come to the Lord and ask for his help, it’s as if we were offering the Lord a pleasing sacrifice, a sweet aroma that fills the entire heavenly court. Our prayers may not look like much to us, but when we bring our needs humbly and sincerely before the Lord, our words are transformed. The cry of our hearts becomes a sweet perfume. And a sort of divine exchange occurs. God takes notice!
If My People. . . We can see examples of this kind of exchange in Scripture. The Syrophoenician woman filled her own golden bowl when she pleaded with the Lord concerning her daughter—and it changed Jesus’ mind (Mark 7:25-30). Mary brought the needs of a newlywed couple to Jesus, and it seems that she launched him into his ministry earlier than he intended (John 2:1-11). Moses’ prayer was so persistent, he must have filled up hundreds of bowls as he prayed for the Israelites. And God decided not to destroy them even though they had committed a grave sin of idolatry (Exodus 32:7-14).
We think that prayer is all about God’s power to change our hearts and minds. There is truth in that, but we shouldn’t forget God’s promise that our prayers can change his mind as well. Remember what he told Solomon: “If my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray, and seek my presence and turn from their evil ways, I will hear them from heaven and pardon their sins and revive their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
This promise tells us that what we do matters. What we do releases grace, blessing, pardon, and revival upon other people. We can influence God. We can ask him to release his grace upon the world and he will hear and answer. If we try to live as God has commanded us to live, if we turn our hearts toward him, he will be moved and turn his heart toward the people we are praying for.
A Miracle of Intercession. In 1940, British and French soldiers were trapped at Dunkirk, France. It looked like a crushing defeat was imminent. But on May 26, Britain’s King George VI called for a day of prayer. Churches across England and beyond were filled as people prayed for God’s intercession.
What happened next? For some reason that still can’t be explained, Adolf Hitler overruled his generals and chose not to invade even though his army was only fourteen miles away. What’s more, the weather cooperated. Thunderstorms and fog made it difficult for the German planes to fly. But despite the storms, an unusual calm came over the English Channel, enabling small boats and yachts to come and rescue thousands and thousands of soldiers. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called this rescue “a miracle of deliverance.” He said, “A guiding hand interfered to make sure the allied forces were not annihilated at Dunkirk.” A day of national thanksgiving was called to celebrate the event, which quickly became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.
Was this merely an error in German judgment combined with unusual weather patterns? Or was it divine providence coming as a result of a people’s prayers of intercession? That depends on whether you believe that God works in this world. It depends on whether you believe that he hears the cries of his people and answers their prayers.
Remember, though, that the Miracle at Dunkirk happened through a combination of the people’s prayers and the bravery of the soldiers and rescuers involved. Similarly, we need to believe that our prayers of intercession combined with our efforts to rescue people who are trapped in discouragement or unbelief can produce miracles.
A Structure for Intercessory Prayer
“I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone.” —1 Timothy 2:1
1. Put together a list of your own needs and the issues close to your heart.
Use a prayer journal or a notebook to keep track of the people and the situations you want to lift up to the Lord.
2. Quiet your mind.
Go to a quiet place where it’s just you and God. Try your best to give Jesus your undivided attention.
3. Take up an attitude of humble, loving persistence.
Like a child, keep on asking the Lord for his help. Keep on knocking on the door, saying, “Jesus, let your grace flow to us.”
4. Pray for God’s concerns.
Intercede for what weighs on God’s heart: Those who have fallen away, a divided Church, the threat of abortion, the poor, the abused, those bound by addiction or scarred by broken relationships, those in prison, those suffering from war.
5. Pray for the items on your personal list.
Intercede for your concerns. Have expectation that God is answering your prayers.
6. End with gratitude.
Make it a point to thank Jesus and praise him for his kindness and his grace.