Intercessory Prayer and the Importance of Presence
There is a scene in the movie “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” where the Grinch is up on his mountain shouting down at Whoville. With an open phonebook in his hand, he goes down the line of Whoville residents to declare his utter disdain for them all. The Grinch’s hatred of the Whos is universal, even though there are some he personally despises. Nonetheless, his overall hatred is not personal in any real way. He doesn’t know these Whos he names from the phonebook – their evil is simply intrinsic to their residing in Whoville. But imagine that the movie continued past the Grinch’s “conversion.” Imagine at the end we find a happy Grinch, now at peace with his Whoville neighbors. Wouldn’t it be odd to find him doing the same activity, but now proclaiming his love? Wouldn’t it be unusual, in a way that his earlier activity wasn’t, to open a phonebook and go down the list shouting his love and praise for the Whos personally…by name…from a phonebook. I think this would be more than odd, it would be impossible. Love, unlike hatred, has an intrinsically personal inclination within it. Love, real personal love, is not generic in the same way hate can be – hate in this regard has an inclination toward bigotry in a way love cannot. Love cannot be proclaimed in an abstract way, but it must connect in reality between people.
It may seem odd to start a post about intercessory prayer with the Grinch, but I think it helps to unveil how odd much of our intercession can be. If you are like me, it is easy to rack up lists of people to pray for. I feel guilty about not praying for more people, I see my Facebook feed generating prayer request after prayer request, and suddenly my prayers become a lot like the Grinch’s shouting. I am not with these people in prayer; in fact, I am barely able to internalize their plight. Rather, I am lobbing prayers at God for someone who is far from my heart. In many ways, this kind of intercession struggles with a threefold absence: 1. I am absent from the person I am praying for, and am really just naming requests as I work my way down a list; 2. I am absent from myself, since I am not actually entering into the real heart of the request; and 3. I am absent from God, because I am not with him with these requests, I am just sort of throwing them at him from afar. This is the real danger for intercession. This is when intercession becomes little more than shouting a list at God.
As of late, I have been asked to speak about Beloved Dust, the book I recently co-wrote with Jamin Goggin. When I do, I often speak about prayer – a central theme of that book (hear one of my talks on prayer here). When I speak, I tend to focus on the main theme of Beloved Dust, which is what it means to “be with God who is always with you.” Inevitably, someone asks me about intercessory prayer, and claims that my understanding of prayer cannot account for it: Being with God in prayer seems to make sense for personal prayer, but not for praying for others. But I don’t think this is right. To pray for someone entails that I am present in three key ways. First, that I am present both to them and their condition, second, that I am really present to myself and my own relation to them, upholding them within my own spirit, third, that I am present to God who is with me and them in all of this. Without this threefold presence, I am not actually interceding. Without this presence, I am barely even praying, but am attempting to offer-up a magical formula on their behalf. This is the reality of list-praying; it hopes for magic: to generate some effect by saying the right words in the right way. But this isn’t prayer.
That said, we can, and should, pray for those we do not know, and we can, and should, really be with them in the midst of it. Maybe we hear of a family who are friends of friends, and a real tragedy that has struck, and so we turn to prayer for them. We do not know them personally, but we can personally enter into their circumstances. We can still be with them in prayer, if we enter into their tragedy in the Lord. But more often, in my own case, I simply offer a lazy attempt at a prayer at God. But this pushes against the reality of God’s presence, and our own presence with God in prayer. It is important to recall that our lives are hidden with Christ who is in God (Col. 3:3), and that Christ is our true high priest who intercedes for us before the Father (Heb. 4:14, 7:25).
All of our true prayers are caught up in the intercession of Christ. This is what frees us in prayer to lament. We often call out to a God that does not make sense to us. As we experience the brokenness of the world, and the brokenness of our own souls, we cry out. This is what makes list-praying so dangerous – it never gets around to being with the other person. How odd is it that I can, in intercessory prayer, come alongside someone who is hurting and not hurt with them. How is it that I can praise God for something in someone’s life and yet not really praise within my soul? But this is how list-praying forces us to pray. List-praying is withholding yourself from the other person who you’ve given yourself to in prayer. Think about Paul’s giving himself to his churches even though he wasn’t able to be with them, and how this can serve as a model for our intercession. Notice Paul’s encouragement to the Colossians:
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:1-7 ESV)
What might it look like to be “absent in body,” yet present “in spirit” when we pray for others? What might it look like if we entered into the plight of others, and really gave ourselves to them and their hurt, praise, sorrow, excitement and lament? The Christian life is being with God who is always with you. But being with God is a communal reality, because you are adopted, and therefore you are caught up into a new family of God (Eph. 2:18-19). You have brothers and sisters who are yours, and you have a God who is calling you to himself in love. God calls you to himself, and to others in love, which is why Jesus prays to the Father that we can be one, as he and the Father are, so that everyone would know that we are loved by the Father (John 17:20-23). To pray in this love, therefore, is to enter into it as you really are. In light of this, it may be helpful to listen to Paul again, this time asking for prayer:
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. Brothers, pray for us. (1 Thessalonians 5:14-25 ESV)
The call to pray without ceasing is almost hidden within a call to be with one another, to seek each other’s good, to encourage the fainthearted and weak, etc. This is important. Holding each other in prayer before God is central to the Christian life – a life lived with God who is always present to you. To live with God who is always with you necessarily means that you live with his people, who are a part of his body. This is why Paul says, “there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:25-26). This is our call in prayer, to suffer together, to lament together, to rejoice together, to weep together, or to simply uphold each other in the silence of sorrow. Whatever is going on with us, and within the people the Lord has brought around us, we are called to take part in their experience. “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11).
As in all our prayers, we should end with “Not my will but yours be done.” But this is not simple hand-waiving to the imitation of Christ; it is calling out our limited understanding and God’s infinite knowing. But in intercession, we do not leave it there. As interceders, we are partaking in an office properly held by Christ Jesus and the Spirit. Our intercession, therefore, turns to supplication: “Christ Jesus, our great high-priest, have mercy. Hear our prayers O Lord, be with this one in your grace and peace. Intercede Jesus. Not our wills, but yours be done.”
For more on living with God who is always with you, and the nature of prayer, see Beloved Dust: Drawing Close to God by Discovering the Truth About Yourself (Thomas Nelson, 2014).