The call to intercede for others through prayer is a high calling. But it can be a confusing one, too. Our minds conjure up images of the great ones of the faith, kneeling for hours before dawn, standing in the gap for the lost and the hurting. Yes, I want to faithfully pray for others, but if this is the standard, I'm doomed to failure.
I'd like to think that I could really be a Prayer Warrior. But in reality I'm more of a prayer half-ling, a mere hobbit of intercessory middle earth.
What if we discovered that intercession wasn't so much a role to accept or a great charge to keep—but rather a way to deeply love and care for others? What would our response be then?
Luke 5:17-26 is a familiar story to many of us. It's filled with spectacular images: crowds of eager, anxious people, pressing in, trying to get through the door of a house. Many of them sick, some with walking sticks, some very old, babies and children crying, holding on to their parents' hands as the crowds push forward. The air is hot, thick, and dusty. The noise level is climbing.
And we see Jesus, standing inside this crowded house, calmly attending to the throng.
At the outer edges of the crowd we see four men, each of them carrying a corner of the stretcher that's holding their paralyzed friend. They have evidently heard that Jesus has a miraculous touch and are determined to take their friend to him.
We know what happens next: The four men see that walking through the front door with their friend on a stretcher simply isn't an option. The crowds won't allow it. Not to be dissuaded, they go for Plan B.
The four men throw caution to the wind. They carry their friend up to the roof, through which they boldly punch a hole, and lower their friend down, right in front of Jesus. And Jesus proceeds to forgive this paralyzed man of his sins and heal him of his paralysis, in front of the Pharisees and everybody.
What if this was our model for intercession?
The Task at Hand
The four friends seemed to know exactly what their role was: Get their friend to Jesus, no matter what the cost. They were willing to do whatever it took: they'd endure the physical challenge of it, they'd resist the social obstacles of the crowd, they'd think creatively, they'd sacrifice material goods (I can just hear them saying, "Who cares; it's a roof! We'll fix it tomorrow!").
Four guys had a mission and were determined to fulfill it. They didn't let the obstacles keep them from getting their friend to Jesus.
Sometimes we let our unanswered questions about prayer keep us from truly engaging in the work of it. Like crowds of people blocking our way, the mysteries of "how prayer works" or "why God doesn't always answer in the ways we'd like" keep us from the most basic and necessary task of just getting our friends to Jesus.
I've fallen prey to this kind of thinking. Sometimes I'll receive an email in the middle of the day, asking me to pray for someone's painful situation: a surgery, a possible divorce, a woman having complications in labor. The questions about how prayer works can sometimes crowd around me, threatening to keep me from the task at hand. What if I pray, but things go badly? What if I don't pray often enough, or sincerely enough? Or worse, I determine to pray—later. When I finish up whatever I'm doing right then. Like the four friends in Luke's account, I need to simply determine to get through them—up, over, around, whatever it takes. I don't have to understand "how prayer works"—I just need to get that friend to Jesus.
Interestingly, the Gospel account doesn't record any verbal request by the four friends once they make contact with Jesus. All we know is that they lowered their friend through the roof and laid him at Jesus' feet.
They apparently weren't concerned about what to say. They didn't seem to think that the wording of their request was that important. In fact, they may have used no words at all. But they had faith to know Jesus would know exactly what to do.
What if this was the overarching characteristic of our prayers for others? Isn't there something tremendously comforting and freeing to imagine our friends at the feet of Jesus—and that we can be instrumental in that? That he, with unspeakable love and compassion, will act on that person's behalf in ways that we couldn't begin to prescribe to him? Rather than being concerned about how we pray, what if instead we were consumed by the knowledge of the person to whom we pray?
This is a wonderful way to pray, particularly when earthly situations are completely incomprehensible. Through sanctified imagination, I can perfectly picture myself carrying that friend, that child, that couple, and laying them at the feet of Jesus.
Sometimes I honestly don't know what to say as I pray. But it is in such cases the Spirit intercedes for me, reminding me that placing these beloved ones in the arms of Jesus is one of the best ways I can love them. We can, in prayer, take others to the feet of Jesus and in full faith leave them there, knowing that he will do exactly what he knows is best.
A Larger View
Finally, we see that Jesus attended to the whole person. He healed the man of his spiritual paralysis and then healed him of his physical paralysis. What a great reminder: Jesus sees us as whole people—body, spirit, soul. The guys on the roof believed that Jesus could heal their friend. But they may not have realized to what extent.
Our sight is often short as we pray for others. A spiritual director of mine was a great woman of prayer. In the course of her ministry, Margaret was often asked to pray for the physical ailments of others.
"Honey," she'd respond in her sweet Kentucky accent, "I'll gladly pray for that illness. But first, I'm going to pray for their soul and spirit." Margaret had a larger view of what God wanted to do, a view that I often miss when I'm asked to join in prayer for others.
The ways God answers prayer go beyond what we could ever ask or imagine, and sometimes beyond what we'll see in this life. We can be assured that we'll see the completed picture one day in the future.
Just Get Them There!
Jesus calls each of us to be intercessors, to stand in the gap on behalf of others. Fortunately, we don't do the work alone. Jesus just wants us to get people to him. Once we do, he'll know what to do, even if we don't have the words to ask him for it.
Interceding for others is a way of loving them, deeply and meaningfully. This gift takes on real meaning when I realize that I will have my own turn as the paralytic on the stretcher. In that situation, I know now how I hope other Christians will pray for me. I want to be placed at the feet of Jesus. I can think of no better place to be.