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. God simply wants us to turn 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 all of us: “When you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you” (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 Bill was told that he had an aggressive case of prostate cancer, he sought out the members of his parish prayer group and asked them to pray with him for healing. After ten five-minute sessions of prayer—once a week—Bill returned to the hospital for more tests. Amazingly, his cancer levels were reduced to zero.
Of course, Bill was undergoing a course of chemotherapy at the same time as he was receiving prayer. He also made significant changes to his diet, under the supervision of his doctor. So on the one hand, we will never know for sure exactly what caused such a dramatic turnaround. On the other hand, Bill’s doctor was both excited and surprised by the results of the latest tests. He said it was very rare to see such a dramatic turnaround. Bill himself credits the power of God for his healing, and he has been sharing his story with anyone who will listen.
Fasting and Intercession. Throughout Scripture and church history, fasting and intercession have been intimately linked to each other. Over and over again people fasted when they wanted God’s help. 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). Nehemiah fasted for the restoration of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:4). The entire 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). Jesus himself fasted before beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2). St. Paul fasted after his conversion (Acts 9:8-9). The elders of the church at Antioch 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).
Logically, there is no reason why fasting should lead to an outpouring of grace, protection, or wisdom. But God does not always follow the limitations of our human logic. It’s not that fasting changes God, either. Fasting changes us. It humbles us and makes us more dependent on the Lord. By consciously choosing to deny ourselves, we are telling ourselves that we want to be more open to the Lord. We are saying that we want to be guided by his wisdom and his provision. We are saying that we don’t want to be content with our human ways of fulfillment and wisdom.
It’s not as if we are trying to convince God to do what we want. It’s more that we are taking steps to align ourselves with God and his ways. We are stating that we want to understand the situation we are praying about from God’s perspective. And we are also telling God that we want to empty ourselves so that he can fill us and use us as his instruments—whether of healing, comfort, guidance, or support—in this situation. More than anything else, fasting makes us more pliable and less self-oriented.
Once when the apostles were unable to deliver a demon Jesus said, “this kind” came out only by fasting and prayer (Mark 9:29). Likewise, there are serious needs—sickness, unemployment, broken relationships, depression—that require prayer and fasting. Either the situation is so desperate that we need to take desperate measures, or it is so confusing to us that we need to do something to make ourselves more available to God so that he can teach us and use us.
If you have a specific, pressing 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. Maybe give up one meal and spend the time in intercession instead. You may want to try this once a week, and then slowly build up to a more rigorous fast. But always be careful to gauge your health and energy. It may also be a good idea to consult your doctor before trying anything too demanding. The goal, of course, is not to lose weight. And it’s not to prove yourself to God. It’s simply to make yourself more available to the Lord.
The Mystery of God’s Will. There is still one question we 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—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? 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 pretty safe to say that there is no simple answer. If there were, people wouldn’t still be asking it 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 difficult or challenging situations. But it tells us also that our prayer should not be limited to asking God to take away the problem or to demand the solution that we think is the best one. Rather, in our intercessions, we should also ask God to soften our hearts and help us stay open 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. Rather, mystery here speaks about God’s eternal, all-encompassing plan and purpose. It has to do with a plan from our heavenly Father that is so vast that we cannot possibly grasp it in its fullness. It is something that we will never figure out—but something that God can reveal to us a little bit at a time.
So when we face a trying situation or dilemma, we should continue to pray for healing or a solution. But we should also ask God to shed some light on the mystery behind this situation and to give us the grace to embrace his plan, whatever that may be. We should always keep our hearts open to the Lord and repeat the words of the frustrated psalmist: “I trust in your faithfulness” (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 puzzling 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.
We Can Change Lives! In all of our intercessions, be they for the sick, for an end to war or abortion, for the church, for healing in a marriage or family, or for our loved ones to come to know the Lord, we should never be anxious. Instead, let’s follow Paul’s exhortation: “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6). He is all-powerful, but he is also all-wise. And that means that we can rest in his provision, even as we try to work through difficult, challenging situations.
As we “stand in” for others and intercede, we will see our Father working 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 we should know that whenever God’s people turn to him in prayer, he works marvels. So let’s never go a day without lifting up the needs that are on our hearts—both the large, global crises and the small, personal ones. He is a loving God, and he will hear and answer us.