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.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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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.