A con­fes­sion: I’ve been uncom­fort­able with my inter­ces­so­ry prayer because it seems to resem­ble telling God how to fix things. I’ve asked God to get peo­ple to do what I thought they should do — a friend or fam­i­ly mem­ber get­ting a cer­tain kind of job, stop dat­ing a cer­tain per­son, or go back to college.

So you can imag­ine the jolt I felt at read­ing these words of Oswald Cham­bers: What we must avoid in inter­ces­sion is pray­ing for some­one to be sim­ply patched up.’ We must pray that per­son through into con­tact with the very life of God.”1 Was I will­ing to move with­in and beyond my con­cern about people’s cir­cum­stances to car­ing about their one­ness with God?

From Cir­cum­stances To Soul-Formation 

To pray that oth­ers would con­nect with the very life of God” invites us to pon­der the per­son in need or the messy sit­u­a­tion. We find our­selves ask­ing God, What do I need to know about this per­son? How might this per­son or this sit­u­a­tion con­nect with you? Being open is impor­tant because, if we stay with a sea­son of prayer for long enough, the things we orig­i­nal­ly put for­ward in our prayer have often been put aside, and a whole new lay­er of long­ings for that per­son or sit­u­a­tion often emerges in their place.2 That new lay­er of long­ings often has to do with the for­ma­tion of that person’s soul. 

For exam­ple, Jesus prayed for Peter’s soul’s well-being before Peter denied him. Odd­ly, Jesus didn’t pray that Peter wouldn’t deny him (which would have been more tidy and con­ve­nient for all con­cerned). Instead, Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith wouldn’t fail (Lk 22:32). As a good teacher, Jesus gave Peter lat­i­tude to make mis­takes and prayed that Peter would devel­op an abid­ing, endur­ing faith in spite of, in the mid­dle of, and even because of his mis­take. When we err as Peter did, our faith is like­ly to fail — usu­al­ly because our faith is in our own faith, instead of our faith being in God. But if we can freely admit our mis­takes and choose to trust the ade­qua­cy of God, our faith will grow and we can strength­en others. 

Such pray­ing some­times helps us grasp the deep­er issue behind the trou­ble­some behav­ior or sit­u­a­tion, giv­ing us that new lay­er of long­ings. For exam­ple, when our teenage daugh­ter left home for a life of couch surf­ing” (sleep­ing on the couch­es of dif­fer­ent friends every night) we prayed, of course, that she would come home. After months of these prayers, I grad­u­al­ly saw that this trek of hers was some­how nec­es­sary to her devel­op­ment. She was try­ing to fig­ure out who she was apart from her par­ents and I had to give her room to do some scary things as Jesus gave Peter that room. So besides pray­ing for her safe­ty, I began to pray that her faith would not fail in this jour­ney. As she saw that I wasn’t try­ing to get her to come home and that my trust in her was grow­ing (well … trust in God and her), she accept­ed our invi­ta­tion to come home once a week for fam­i­ly din­ner.” This was unheard of behav­ior for a run­away (as our sup­port group lead­ers informed us) and such a trea­sure for us. 

Jesus’ prayer for Peter informed me in anoth­er way as well. Jesus asked that when Peter turned back, he would strength­en the oth­ers. Thus the prayed-for person’s growth — their deep­ened union with God and trans­for­ma­tion into Christ­like­ness — can be released to help those around them. So when inter­ced­ing for oth­ers, we can also pray for those watch­ing the sit­u­a­tion — not only to heal their pain but also that they might receive strength and direc­tion from God in the midst of it. So I began pray­ing for my aching rel­a­tives, my daughter’s friends and espe­cial­ly my hus­band that their faith would grow.

Wait­ing And Learning 

This new lay­er of long­ings emerges as we seek and wait and lis­ten to God. A sense of what we need to know doesn’t usu­al­ly come right away (although now and then it does) so we choose to remain in that space of inter­ces­so­ry prayer — for days and weeks and months and years — until a bet­ter view of the very life of God” takes shape. 

This chal­lenges the idea that pray­ing per­sis­tent­ly is about con­vinc­ing God that our desire is wor­thy or our hav­ing to prove our own worth to receive answers. To pray per­sis­tent­ly is valu­able because it enlight­ens us as we con­verse with God. As we begin to see the good that God might bring forth in a per­son, the next ques­tion falls into place: How can I be a part of that? Then we wait more for ideas — not quick fix­es, but gen­tle sug­ges­tions that prob­a­bly won’t make much of a splash (except that they’re God-empowered). 

If the wait­ing seems tire­some or hope­less, we can pray hold­ing a pic­ture of this per­son we’re pray­ing for (often from a fam­i­ly pho­to or a group pho­to of those we serve or work with). To see their face helps us get beyond their cir­cum­stances to the for­ma­tion of their soul. As I pic­tured the look that so fre­quent­ly appeared on our teenage daughter’s face, I saw some­one rest­less­ly wan­der­ing down a path, fol­low­ing any­one who appeared to be smart or fun. I prayed that in her earnest search she would find peo­ple who were wise. 

At oth­er times I’ve pic­tured a person’s approach to life. As I pic­tured the dis­po­si­tion of a blus­tery co-work­er, I saw his inner self as fear­ful, angry, and feel­ing inad­e­quate. So I pic­tured him bound up in fear and hold­ing up anger like armor to avoid being hurt again or trapped in inse­cu­ri­ty and inad­e­qua­cy. For my friend who was plagued by a mys­te­ri­ous res­pi­ra­to­ry ail­ment, I pic­ture her con­gest­ed, flu­id-rid­dled body full of con­sum­ing lit­tle germs that were eat­ing up her ener­gy. Then I sat with that image and ask God that my friend be freed. 

As I pray with these pic­tures, oth­er ideas come to me — my daugh­ter has felt she missed out on fun. I can pray that she find legit­i­mate sources of fun and that I com­mu­ni­cate to her how much I enjoy her. My co-work­er had a dic­ta­to­r­i­al par­ent and needs to be freed from con­tin­u­al­ly defend­ing him­self from that par­ent. My friend is dou­bly frus­trat­ed because she hates to slow down when she’s sick so I pray that this time of slow­ness will enrich her rather than frus­trate her.

Par­tic­i­pat­ing In The Love Of Christ 

To pray for those we inter­cede for into con­tact with the very life of God helps us join Christ in tru­ly lov­ing them — want­i­ng what is best for them. We learn to care more deeply for oth­ers instead of just try­ing to get our way, and this becomes an impor­tant part of form­ing our soul. Dal­las Willard writes, Prayer is, above all, a means of form­ing char­ac­ter. It com­bines free­dom and pow­er with ser­vice and love.”3 Our desires become more about par­tic­i­pat­ing in the love of Christ and less about get­ting what we thought we wanted. 

As inter­ces­sion becomes a work of love, one of our great­est chal­lenges is to inter­cede for an ene­my,” whom I define as any­one we find dif­fi­cult today. For my hus­band and me, that meant pray­ing for our daughter’s way­ward boyfriend who influ­enced her so much. But it could include folks such as the per­son who throws trash in our yard or the fam­i­ly mem­ber who bul­lies us. In this way, we see such peo­ple as ones whom God so loves” instead of per­sons whose pri­ma­ry func­tion is to thwart us. This also results in the for­ma­tion of our soul — shap­ing us into lovers of our ene­mies – and per­haps the for­ma­tion of the soul of that enemy. 

But pray­ing for dif­fi­cult peo­ple con­fus­es us — do I want this per­son to be blessed? Did I want my daughter’s way­ward boyfriend to make mon­ey so he could finance her life on the streets? In these cas­es, we can bor­row from the best, using ideas the saints have used. For exam­ple, these phras­es were used by the Apos­tle Paul: 

  • that they be strength­ened in their inner being with pow­er through Christ’s Spir­it (Eph 3:16)
  • that they be root­ed and ground­ed in love (Eph 3:17)
  • that they know (inter­ac­tive­ly) the love of Christ that sur­pass­es knowl­edge (Eph 3:19)
  • that [in them] love may over­flow more and more with knowl­edge and full insight to help [them] to deter­mine what is best (Phil 1:9 – 10)

Pray­ing this way for a dif­fi­cult per­son ben­e­fits not only his soul but mine.

In these ways inter­ces­so­ry prayer becomes the work Christ does in us form­ing our soul — help­ing us to love oth­ers deeply as we see them from God’s point of view.

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[1] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (updated version), (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1992), December 13 entry, italics mine.

[2] Douglas Steere “Intercession: Caring for Souls” Weavings March/April, 1989, p. 21, italics mine.

[3] The Divine Conspiracy Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 250.