When I was a pastor, one of my responsibilities was to pray for the congregation. I usually began every morning in my “praying chair” with the church directory open on my lap. I would look at the pictures and pray for each person by name. It was easy, as long as I was praying in generalities. It was harder when I tried to pray in specifics. Besides asking God to give them a good day, keep them safe, and bless them (whatever that meant), I often found myself at a loss for words.
My problem wasn’t the church’s size. The congregation was small, only fifty or sixty regular attenders. I knew everyone by name. I knew where they worked and some of the details of their lives. I was usually aware when something happened worth praying about: an illness, a job change, a death in the family. It wasn’t rocket science. It seemed to me that being familiar with the congregation should make praying for them easier, but it wasn’t.
Most of the time, when we pray for others, we are either trying to change them or their situation, but we face two significant obstacles. One is the people for whom we are praying. The other is God. It sometimes seems as if neither party is willing to cooperate with our effort. Do a search on books about intercessory prayer on the Internet, and the overall impression you get is that our concerns in this area are primarily concerns of focus and method. Many of the titles describe those for whom we should pray. They are about praying for our spouses and children, our nation, and our churches. We are praying for health, prosperity, and revival. These book titles indicate that we wrestle with the same insecurities and disappointments here as we do with the rest of our prayers. We don’t think we are very good at it. We are worried about our technique and are looking for some way to ensure we will get the response we desire from God.
The first explicit example of intercessory prayer recorded in Scripture is by Abraham. This doesn’t mean that he was the first to pray. Or even that he was the first to pray for someone else. Abraham prayed for Sodom after God told him that he intended to destroy the city. One of the most surprising features of this prayer is that it sounds like bargaining. It was not Abraham who initiated the conversation but God. However, Abraham did have a personal stake in the outcome. His nephew Lot was a resident of Sodom. The way that Abraham keeps driving down the number of righteous people needed to spare the city of Sodom does indeed make it feel as if he is haggling with a merchant in the marketplace. Upon closer inspection, however, there was no bargaining going on at all in Abraham’s intercession. A bargain involves an exchange with some quid pro quo given and received. Abraham offers nothing in exchange for the terms he suggests to God other than an article of faith. He only asks that “the Judge of all the earth do right” (Genesis 18:25).
Of all those who pray in the Old Testament, Moses stands as the premier example of intercessory prayer. One of his most notable prayers occurred when Israel turned from God and worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32–34). Moses’s prayer seems to stand between God and the destruction of the nation. On the surface, we could be tempted to see God’s anger as a momentary flash of rage that subsides after Moses talks God off the ledge.
A closer analysis reveals much more. If God had truly wanted to destroy the nation, he could have done so while Moses was still on the mountain. Instead, the Lord said, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt” (Exodus 32:7). More than informing Moses of the problem, this declaration is cleverly framed in a way that seems to place their fate in Moses’s hands. In addition to calling them “your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt,” the Lord demands, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (v. 10). In the exchange that follows, Moses prays four times and offers three arguments based on what God has already revealed about his purpose and character.
Intercessory prayer is not bargaining or talking God into or out of something. When we pray for others, we respond to God’s invitation to enter into his purposes. Instead of carefully crafted arguments intended to persuade a reluctant God, we confess God’s promises. His grace, mercy, and justice shape our petitions. The more we know about God, the more confidently and intelligently we can pray.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul is both an example and an advocate for intercessory prayer. He saw intercession as a way of participating with God in what he is doing in the lives of others. Praying for others is a way of participating with God in what he is doing in the lives of others. When we engage in intercessory prayer, we are not trying to direct God’s attention toward someone he is not aware of or in whom he is not interested. When we pray for someone else, we enter into a relationship that already exists between that person and God as their creator.
The apostle Paul’s language of spiritual collaboration places intercessory prayer within a relational rather than a transactional framework. He saw the Corinthians as his helpers through their prayers. Those who prayed for Paul enabled him to preach. Their prayers went on ahead and opened doors (2 Cor. 1:11). The same is true for us. The record of Paul’s prayers in his letters and his requests that the churches pray for him in return provide evidence of a praying network that was the foundation of the apostle’s ministry. Paul not only solicited prayers for himself but invited them to pray along with him for others. When we pray for a friend going through a hard time, we share the load with them. Our prayers can ease their burden.
How, then, should we practice the art of intercessory prayer? To some extent, the answer is that intercessory prayer is the same as any other kind of praying. We bring our concerns to God and ask him to take care of them. The apostle Paul’s prayers recorded in the New Testament provide a simple model that we can use for ourselves. Many of his prayers include four key elements. First, they are addressed to God. But rather than merely saying, “Dear God,” Paul’s openings often describe God by one of his attributes as recorded in Scripture.
The second element of Paul’s prayers is a request. Sometimes these are stated explicitly as petitions and at other times in words that sound more like a wish. The point here is not so much whether he used the optative mood or the indicative when he made his requests so much as it is that he saw those for whom we pray within the framework of God’s care. He was not merely asking for things. He made his requests with a Godward focus. The apostle recognized that a petition is not a demand.
A third feature of Paul’s prayers is that they usually mention those for whom he prays. He has specific people in mind. Paul’s prayers for others are personal and suited to their needs. They are not vague. The third feature of Paul’s prayers is that they usually mention those for whom he prays. He has specific people in mind. Paul’s prayers for others are personal and suited to their needs. They are not vague.
A fourth element of the apostle’s prayers is that Paul often articulates an outcome that he expects to see as a result of God’s answer. These purpose clauses set the apostle’s requests within the larger framework of God’s plan. It is easy to be so caught up in the specific requests we are making that we lose sight of why we are praying at all. Christian prayer is not magic. We are participating in God’s plan for the church, for our lives, and the world at large. There is a bigger picture to keep in view, along with the particular requests that we make. God’s purposes and his promises are a motivator and a guide in all our praying.
There is one other noteworthy feature of Paul’s intercessory prayers. Those that are recorded in the New Testament are generally brief. Often, they are no more than a paragraph or two. Many are only a few sentences. Our prayers do not have to be works of art. They do not have to be long. We can pray while working, playing, or as we lie on our bed at night. Say what you have to say as best you can and leave the matter with God.