I sat across the table from my friend Susan, searching her pain-filled eyes and wondering how I could help. Her situation was outside my realm of influence: She had suffered an unexpected personal attack from former friends within the congregation her husband pastored. And I had no words to right the wrongs or ease her aching heart. "I'm sorry," I attempted weakly. She half-smiled, then asked me to pray for her.
Unable to offer anything else, I promised I'd join her in making Mondays a day of fasting and prayer for her and her church. But after leaving our lunch and resuming my crazy schedule, would I actually keep my promise?
Entering the Interior
Too often when I encounter someone's desperate need, I offer a quick "You're in my prayers" without slowing down enough to make good on my word. Any "real" praying I do consists of a hastily muttered sentence during my busy day, as if I'm merely checking off my to-do list or making God aware of a situation he might've missed.
But the responsibility to pray for others deserves serious attention, as the abundance of biblical examples indicates. Moses regularly spoke with God on the Israelites' behalf because of their sin (Numbers 21:7). Esther requested her people to fast three days before she faced a volatile king (Esther 4:15-16). Paul asked early church members to pray for his speaking ministry (Ephesians 6:19-20). And Jesus spent most of his longest recorded prayer in passionate intercession for us (John 17).
Intercession—derived from the Latin words inter (between) and cedere (to go)—is an intervening or mediating between two parties with the goal of reconciling differences. And the key to a spiritual intervention is prayer. In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers calls intercessory prayer "the ministry of the interior" and "the real business of your life as a saved soul." If so, we need to move past good intentions and make interceding a vital part of living in Christian community.
Standing in the Gap
God invites us to participate in his concern for his children by going before him on their behalf. During the prophet Ezekiel's lifetime, the Lord longed to show mercy to his wayward people through an intercessor: "I looked for a man among them who would … stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it" (Ezekiel 22:30). My friend describes this kind of gap-standing prayer as "reaching out a warm hand to a hurting friend while never relaxing your other hand's firm grip on God. You make a life-giving connection."
Although my prayers reach God regardless of their length or eloquence (Matthew 7:7-12, Reve-lation 5:8), they need to go beyond brief, one-sided conversations to make this connection that so many people need. A few weeks ago, my friend lost her mother to melanoma. A pregnant woman in my Bible study recently watched her husband leave her. And last week, another friend's husband pulled a gun on her. For these kinds of needs, my half-hearted prayers seem comparable to approaching my neighbor's burning house armed with only a water bottle. I dishonor the need by not matching my response to the problem's significance.
God did intercession first and best, matching a sizeable problem with a sufficient solution. He recognized the flames of our sinful nature had consumed us, and he sent Jesus, the fullness of himself in human flesh. Christ offered a life-giving connection: one hand extended to us and the other firmly holding our salvation. He didn't pour out a water bottle—he unleashed the floodgates. And his intercession on our behalf continues: "Christ Jesus … is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us" (Romans 8:34).
Positioning with Purpose
While I know Christ's intercessory prayers are effective, I often wonder if mine will make a difference.
The Bible overflows with examples of situation- and people-altering intercessory prayer. Job's friends obtained God's forgiveness after Job prayed for them (Job 42:8, 10). Lazarus rose from the dead when Jesus petitioned heaven (John 11:41-42). And the prison doors opened after Paul and Silas worshiped and prayed (Acts 16:25-26).
Still, we've all prayed to no avail at times. Our loved one died, the conflict never resolved, the physical ailment remained.
I've begged God repeatedly to re-store health to my friend Kate, who's lived with pancreatic cancer for nearly four years. Though she's felt almost "normal" for the past few glorious months, she called this week to say the doctors believe her oasis of health is drying up. As I cried with her, I fielded an internal barrage of questions: Do I need to pray harder? Is God even listening? What's the purpose of my prayers?
The tortuous journey of illness was a familiar one to C.S. Lewis, whose wife Joy's recurring cancer and remission are portrayed in Shadowlands, a movie based on the couple's relationship. In response to this marriage of joy and pain, the Lewis character comments, "I pray because I can't help myself—the need flows out of me. It doesn't change God; it changes me."
Perhaps the purpose of prayer is more about positioning than petitioning. It moves me from being self-centered to being God-centered and other-centered. As I've prayed regularly for Kate, I've started to view my unrelenting schedule and relational conflicts through the lens of her cancer. Now I'm thankful I'm physically able to have a full schedule, and I'm less flustered with daily stresses. I reflect God's grace toward strangers and his patience toward loved ones. Intercession has freed me from self-absorption (Galatians 6:2, Matthew 5:44-45), relieving me of my misery so I can engage in ministry.
Joining in the Experience
Following the example of Jesus' ministry is costly. The intercession he performed on our behalf—standing be-tween us and our need—required his life. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," Jesus proclaimed (John 15:13). And though our prayerful intercession can't compare to his, it requires we also "lay down" our lives, altering our habits or donating our time to take on the need we're bringing before God.
When I carved out Mondays to fast and pray for Susan's struggles with her church, I had no idea what I was getting into. I enjoy eating three meals (at least) a day! But when I stepped outside my comfort zone, changed Monday appointments, and accepted nagging hunger pangs that brought me to my knees in prayer, I found myself transported into the middle of her crisis, grieving her loss, experiencing her powerlessness, and feeling her deep wounds of disappointment and betrayal.
However, my costly involvement in Susan's life through intercession also came with a bonus: I became more intimately connected to God. With one hand reaching out to Susan, I reached up in desperation to him. And I witnessed God's activity in the crisis—I saw his concern, felt his presence, trusted his purposes.
I also discovered the motivation for the sacrificial, risky, and sometimes ex-hausting business of intercession: God's love (Romans 8:34-9:1). In his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, Philip Yancey explains love's effect: "When I pray for another person, I am praying for God to open my eyes so that I can see that person as God does, and then enter into the stream of love that God already directs toward that person. Something happens when I pray for others in this way. Bringing them into God's presence changes my attitude toward them and ultimately affects our relationship."
Learning to love one another the way God loves us moves us to do what we've never before considered. It bubbles up in kindness when we lack ability. It stirs up compassion when we'd rather stay detached. It frees up our busy schedules when we see that a friend—or even an enemy—needs us to intercede.
And if we fear we don't have enough love for such a task, we can ask the Author of love to pour a bit of overflow from his heart into ours as we open it up to a passionate ministry of gap-standing prayer.
Michele Cushatt is a Bible teacher, writer, and speaker at women's events. She lives with her family in Colorado.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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