This article was first published in April 2022 under the title “What Good is Prayer for Others”. In light of recent events at home and overseas, we’ve decided to re-publish a timely encouragement – Ed.
One of the quirks of celebrating the church calendar in the Southern Hemisphere is that the season of Lent (observed in the Northern Hemisphere during the bleak end of the winter months) takes place against the backdrop of our most abundant time of the year.
Just as our gardens are bearing crops, our fruit trees are laden, and our children are still gorging themselves on butter-soaked sweetcorn and staining their mouths with berries, we enter a time of prayer, voluntary self-denial, and compassionate identification with the poor.1 For me, this juxtaposition of seasons has sometimes accentuated the peculiarity of the conviction that underpins our Lenten disciplines. Lent is a strange work of the heart in which we are invited to face creation’s brokenness: to identify with and take responsibility for it. This work does not always come easily or naturally; the feelings that attend it can be uncomfortable. But the Christian tradition has always affirmed that this time is given to us as a good gift, one that prepares us to receive the even stranger gifts of Easter: it is through sharing in the suffering of Jesus that we participate in his life.
As we journey toward Easter this year, I find it comforting to reflect on the graces we receive through this work of identification with suffering. For many of us, violence and the suffering of others have been the subtext of our daily lives—the first thing we are confronted by in our morning newsfeed and the silent burden we carry through the day. To live as bystanders to the pain of others when we are helpless to alleviate their anguish becomes itself a kind of pain (though any husband who has been present at their wife’s labour will tell you this is a difficult thing to voice). This pain can be oppressive and overwhelming, and the contrast between another’s lot, and our own, guilt-inspiring. And precisely because we have no control over the circumstances, in many such situations it can be tempting to ask whether the wisest course would be simply to shift our focus. In past months, I have had several conversations with people to this effect. No one would dispute the virtue of compassion in relation to global events, but they might question its efficacy. Why entertain unbearable feelings when they are apparently so futile? Here, Lent challenges us to give sustained attention to the world’s brokenness and to hold our hearts in this place as the site of God’s self-disclosure.
But just how might we let ourselves be led by our grief or helplessness into a deeper encounter with God? What postures allow us to discover—in our debilitation—a doorway? One possibility was suggested to me in a moment of wrestling with just these questions.2 It is a practice in which the Lenten themes of prayer and of responsiveness to the needs of the poor converge. A few years ago, I got off a train at my local station in Naenae. I was about to walk through the subway when I saw a mother collar a boy off the train; he looked about intermediate age. She began to berate him: evidently, he had lost an expensive train pass. As he walked along with his head down, humiliated, she leant over him, screaming words of abuse. I felt paralysed—it seemed there was nothing to do. Confronting the mother would have escalated the situation and compounded the boy’s humiliation. But I went through the following week sick with concern for this child. A friend and mentor listened to me recount this story and asked, “What do you think God might be telling you with this unbearable feeling?” It is true that our feelings and desires, even our disappointments or frustrations, can be vehicles for God’s prompting. In this case, my distress was telling me something. “I think God is inviting you into a new way of prayer,” said my friend. “I think God wants you to learn how to pray for others.”
On the face of it, the counsel to pray in response to the needs of others might sound obvious or well worn. But it was my friend’s recognition of an inextricable link between the helplessness of my compassion and the invitation to pray that unlocked something for me. This connection is explored in Romans 8, one of the most extended and mystical passages in Scripture on the Spirit, prayer, and creation—both its current affliction and its glorious final purpose. There, Paul talks directly about an overpowering sense of dissatisfaction and longing—a restless and painful inward groaning—which people of faith can expect to feel. We live between two worlds, Paul writes. We’ve been given a taste of God’s glory, a glimpse of what the liberated creation will be like. But all around us we see suffering and decay. And so, with the rest of creation, our spirits cry out as if in the “agony of labour” (Rom 8:22).
And in this Scripture, the intuitive and proper response to this feeling is to turn it into a kind of prayer. In fact, that’s the response God desires from us, so much so that even as we turn to pray for the suffering creation, God’s Spirit is there; the Spirit picks us up in the act of groaning and prays in us “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). We become part of a kind of call and response from God and to God, in which “God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit,” and “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:27). It is as if the Spirit of Life is welling up within this tired creation, drawing it back into its glorious, generous source, and we are being swept up in the flow of that movement.
We have a vocation for intercession—prayer for others and for the rest of creation—the hallmark of which is an ache at the centre of our existence. Intercession is a task God regards as precious, and it is apparently (if we read this extraordinary Scripture) a beautiful and mysterious call—an opportunity to be drawn into the life of God.
I know some inspiring people of prayer. But I suspect many of us are wandering around with this ache having not yet learned to name the calling to intercession. Others of us haven’t explored intercession very far as a mode of prayer (“Prayer,” as a friend recently said to me, “is that central aspect of faith that everyone assumes you are doing, and no one ever teaches you how to do”). And, for a few reasons, some of us are explicitly hesitant or doubtful about the concept of intercession. At different times, I find myself identifying with each of these postures. There is nothing like the crucible of prayer for exposing our forgetfulness, our faithlessness, our fantasies of God (and their inevitable disappointment); I have not found growth in prayer to be a linear journey. But I can name a couple of things that have sharpened my understanding of intercessory prayer and transformed my experience of it.
The main thing to say about prayers for others when we look at some of the important Scriptures in the books of Hebrews and Romans that deal with this is that our prayer is grounded in and modelled upon a work that Jesus has done and continues to do for us, a work that itself is referred to as “intercession”. “It is Christ Jesus,” writes Paul, “who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Rom 8:34).
Interestingly, here and in other places where it talks about Jesus interceding, the word is often translated as “pleading” or “petition” so that we might picture Jesus “pleading” with God for us or “petitioning” on our behalf. But the primary meaning for the verb in Greek (ἐντυγχάνω) is to meet or encounter or to be in the presence of.3 Jesus is with the Father, interceding for us—that is, he is meeting, encountering, and being in the presence of God for our sake.
When we think of intercession as a work of encounter for the sake of others, we see there is a sense in which the entire life of Jesus is intercessory—a work of encounter that goes two ways. Jesus enters the world of human life and human struggles, and depends on God and trusts God; and through this, God empowers Jesus to love even to the end. In this way, Jesus brings the love of God into the very depths of the human condition. Jesus is with us—he is present to us—bearing the love of God into our world. And then, as God raises Jesus up and he is glorified, Jesus carries us—his friends—with him. Jesus is with God with us on his heart. This is the work of intercession that our prayers for others are modelled on: to enter with compassion into the suffering of others (to be with them with God on your heart) and to enter the presence of God carrying others on your heart.4
In grasping this, we are freed from thinking of intercession as primarily a verbal exercise, and that may be liberating for a few reasons. We are sometimes preoccupied by the question of whether we are praying right. In my work as a university chaplain, I met many people for whom mastery of words has been an important marker of their identity. It has been interesting to discover that many of us within this sphere experience a sense of performance anxiety when it comes to prayer as if getting the words right were somehow central to the task. Also, some cultures of intercession in our church teach us to believe that what we are doing in prayer is banging on the doors of heaven, trying to convince God of something or bargaining with God for something. Both reticence in prayer (the fear of getting it wrong) and anxious fervour (the fear of not being heard) reinforce a distorted understanding of God’s character as if God were somehow distant or disinterested and in need of artful or ardent persuasion. Both postures relate to our tendency to confuse intercession with some kind of “successful” spoken petition.
But, as Rowan Williams puts it, intercession is more akin to letting your heart become a certain kind of place—one in which grief and glory are held together:
A great Church of England writer of the twentieth century writing to a friend said, ‘I’m going to spend ten minutes just thinking about you and Jesus’, and I think that’s a brilliant definition of intercessory prayer … You just hold the image and sense of a person or situation in the presence of God as if you want to let the one seep into the other. The bringing together of those two realities in your mind and heart is very much how I find intercession works.5
As Williams goes on to say, the petitionary words we use in intercession are the words that come up naturally because our emotions are involved. In intense circumstances that involve those we love, we naturally reach for the language of pleading, but the heart of intercession is to let God into suffering and to be in the presence of God with those who are suffering on your heart.
From here, we begin to see ways in which intercession transforms concrete situations in our world. It is difficult to do the work of intercession well without experiencing changes in our outward relationships. This is because it is hard to think of others in the presence of God without growing in love for them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that,
A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses … [because the face of an enemy] … is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.6
Time spent in the presence of God with others on our hearts opens the world anew to God’s transforming love. We should not underestimate just how miraculous works of reconciliation are as an answer to prayer.
But I think many of us will nevertheless wonder whether this is all that there is to intercession. Does it change anything beyond just the heart of the person praying and their close relationships? Does my prayer for Russian soldiers to put down their weapons mean anything? Does intercession work?
This is the question most likely to be weighted with our griefs and disappointments in prayer, and much of what we need by way of response to it cannot be put to paper. But one thing can be said. When it comes to whether or how prayer works, it is vital that we never separate this question from the question of how Jesus is at work. This is because when we ask how prayer works in isolation from the question of how Jesus works, we easily fall into treating prayer as a kind of transaction. When we ask “Does prayer work?”, we begin to mean, “Will I get what I prayed for?” And then when our prayers are not answered as we hoped or expected, we conclude that our prayer has not worked. But, as Debra Dean Murphy writes:
[There is] no sense that prayer ‘works’ in a cause-and-effect fashion. To ask the question of why some prayers are answered and some are not (did we get what we want?) is to reveal how powerfully, if subtly, metaphors like magic or market exchanges inform our views of prayer. I am reminded of Robert Pirsig’s response, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to certain kinds of well-meaning but ill-conceived queries: unask the question. Riffing on the Japanese word mu (“no thing”), Pirsig notes that Zen masters instruct their students to unask questions that presume a context too small for the truth of the answer. Is prayer efficacious? Mu.7
Everything changes when we situate our understanding of prayer in the context of Jesus’s work when we understand that when we pray we are participating in a larger story of God’s slow and definitive transformation of the world.
The Jesus of the gospels walks through the world, bursting with irrepressible compassion. On occasion, it is almost like he cannot help himself but heal people when he sees their affliction. And many truly extraordinary and miraculous things happen around Jesus and in relation to Jesus; it’s as if, in the presence of this one who is so fully attuned to and submissive to creation’s Source, creation is free to be as it always should have been. And yet, as we see in so many accounts of Jesus’s work, he also refuses to sweep in like a magician or showman, fixing the world’s problems in ways that would prove beyond a doubt the power of God. The God we meet in Jesus refuses all means of arbitrary power or control, and seeks to compel the world instead through the way of self-sacrificing love.8 The kingdom of God is like a seed that falls to the ground and dies and sprouts a forest that overwhelms and outlasts the empires of this world (as in this picture by David Jones, “Vexilla regis.”)
This is the God we encounter in prayer. And so, we can expect extraordinary things to happen as we pray. We can also expect the deepest longings of our hearts to be fulfilled in the end. But we can also expect suffering and disappointment. We can expect to find ourselves praying, “How long, Oh Lord?” and crying out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is all part of finding ourselves close to Christ in the difficult and privileged work of prayer. The great promise of Easter is that, as we pick up this strange call to share in the costly compassion of our great intercessor in the midst of so many uncertainties, we will find ourselves sharing also in his joy—the joy of one pleased to reconcile the broken world to God.
1 The contrast between the abundance of Harvest and the austerity of Lent presents a tension but not, ultimately, a contradiction in terms. Lent, no matter where it is celebrated, is always lived against the horizon of God’s provision. One of its invitations is to rediscover ourselves as creatures and to find God always already at the centre of our existence. Our various disciplines of self-denial, repentance, and self-emptying—as insignificant or symbolic as they sometimes are—are attempts to peel back our habits of self-reliance and our pretensions to self-creation to reveal our fundamental dependence. Gratitude for and enjoyment of the gifts we are given are not entirely out of place alongside the disciplines of Lent.
2 I think contrition—taking on responsibility for the brokenness we encounter—is another important posture.
3 Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today (London: SPCK, 1972), 12–18.
4 I am indebted here to Michael Ramsey and his chapter on intercession in The Christian Priest Today (London: SPCK, 1972), 12–18.
5 Rowan Williams, “The Archbishop on Understanding Prayer,” 13 September, 2009, interview by Mark Tully for Something Understood on Radio 4.
6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1956), 76.
7 Debra Dean Murphy, “What are we really doing when all we can do is pray—or not even?,” The Christian Century, May 13, 2020.
8 I am indebted to Rowan Williams’s reading of Mark in this section, particularly his insightful treatment of the messianic secret. See Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark (London: SPCK, 2014).