Intercessory prayer is a fancy term that simply means prayer on behalf of other people. God grants his people tremendous freedom to work with him in bringing about good in the world and there’s simply nothing like the shocking glory of seeing God move powerfully in response to our prayers. Christian history is ripe with stories of these world-changing moments of God’s intervention; if your faith needs a boost, find a senior saint with a habit of intercessory prayer and listen to their stories.
But intercessory prayer also happens to be one of those guilt-inducing topics among Christians, right up there with “do you have a daily quiet time habit?” It’s one of those things we know we should be doing but have trouble making time for in our daily routines.
“Please, not one more thing”
There are usually two causes for this: the first is the “please, not one more thing” sentiment. We hear the call to pray for others and we immediately despair of finding time to do it in our already crazy schedule. Probing a little, I’ve found that some of us have these grand notions that intercessory prayer should take hours, that we should pour ourselves out on our knees in the deep dark of early morning, wording beautiful, poetic, powerful prayers that will move the world. This sounds exhausting, unrealistic, and frankly, melodramatic.
I’m not entirely sure where these ideas come from, but they have little to do with what intercessory prayer actually is. Our poetic powers and the amount of time we spend in prayer has very little to do with the outcome of these prayers. God may be calling us to longer prayers for the sake of our own spiritual formation, but this doesn’t have anything to do with the efficacy of prayer on behalf of others. We are asking God to act; the amount of time we spend asking, the eloquence with which we ask, or the emotional energy we expend to ask doesn’t change God or his response. Intercessory prayer is about our awareness of other people’s needs and our willingness to take up a small part of that burden and carry it before God. Intercessory prayer is about love.
The weight of (dis)belief
The second reason we tend to avoid intercessory prayer is more subtle. With a little time in introspection, we may discover that we simply don’t believe in the power of prayer (or at least in the power of my prayer). It’s a mercy to discover this lack of faith in our hearts, because acknowledging the reality of what we believe is the first step toward a deeper journey with God. He does not despise such lack of faith, but rather comes to us in these moments and meets us where we are. This is an excellent place to begin a journey of intercessory prayer. Be certain that God will not leave you here; he is well known for taking mustard seeds of faith and growing them into something beautiful and powerful.
Start very small
The smallest step you take toward intercessory prayer has the power to change the world. Choose one person you know who is struggling, in want, suffering, or otherwise in need of God’s help. Take a brief moment to consider what God might do to help them, and then ask him to do that thing.
You’ve done every critical part of intercessory prayer and become a part of the restoring work of God in the world. No more is necessary.
Make this a daily habit by putting a reminder in your phone, watch, computer calendar, or sticky note on the bathroom mirror or microwave oven door; if you do, you will have become a regular part of God’s good work in the world.
Bonus: stay with the prayer
God’s good work rarely stays within its proper bounds. As we pray for the needs of others, we find ourselves changed by the mere asking. We find ourselves drawn into the work of God, finding small ways that we can become a part of the answer to some of our prayers. Listen to these instincts and follow where they lead. God invites us into his work of moving mountains.
After a while, we begin to learn that prayer is one of the places where we learn to reign with God. We find union with him as we seek to align our hearts with his heart and our vision for the world with his vision for the world. And as they become one, we become an ever deeper part of the good God is doing in the world. God has delegated to us his power and authority and is willing to train us to wield it—in prayer. We learn to discern the will of God and then pray from that place. This is what it means to both pray and live with Jesus his own prayer and life: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”