I think about people I know, the saints with their swollen ankles or their knobby hands, the rickety prayer warriors who don’t have the physical strength to open a pickle jar but who set whole legions of demons flying for cover whenever they kneel. Some are pious misfits, holy eccentrics. Most are just ordinary, with nothing but the presence of God to distinguish them from all the other people on the face of the earth. MARK BUCHANAN
Intercession is a spiritual discipline fraught with paradox. It can be as mysterious as a shooting star one minute and as mundane as breathing in and out the next. Sometimes it feels like a dance with destiny, but more often like a labor of love. Personally, I’ve had some great adventures in intercession, and even an occasional walk on the wild side, yet there are days I’m put off by the monotony of it. Intercession is an art form, a craft with delicate nuances developed over the course of a lifetime, yet even a child can do it. (Perhaps that is why we tend to come at it with a sort of nonchalance when we ought to be standing gape-jawed at the possibilities before us.)
I’ve read some books on intercession and pondered numerous definitions and still I’m not sure what to say here, but let me begin with this. I once heard of a Christian leader who didn’t believe in praying for his own needs. Whenever he asked for anything from God, it was for someone else’s benefit. His reasoning was that he could count on God’s taking care of him, since He always had, and besides, praying for other people was just more enjoyable. Although I’m not sure I agree with his theology on prayer (Jesus did tell us to ask for our daily bread), I do believe this man is an intercessor, because the cornerstone of intercession is the act of pleading someone else’s case before God in prayer.
From bedtime prayers to huddles in hospital waiting rooms, from e-mail prayer chains to collective cries for revival, from forty-day fasts to Sunday benedictions—intercession can be at the heart of each of these. Even the Wednesday night prayer meetings I was weaned on, the kind that usually turned into a litany of personal or family ailments (Aunt Gracie’s hiatal hernia, Bob’s lost job, Diane’s depression, and of course the unspoken requests), in all likelihood included intercession.
It just seems to me that we often elevate this form of prayer to a lofty plane on which most of us never feel at home. Isn’t there some simple way to approach intercession? Some definition that draws us in, no matter what level of maturity we’re at or what degree of knowledge we’ve acquired?
The Bible sheds an interesting light on the question. The word intercession itself rarely appears, and there are few texts that could even be considered direct teaching on it (we’ll get to those later). What Scripture offers instead is a cornucopia of simple stories that show people praying for one another in all kinds of situations.
There are the Sunday school favorites—Abraham pleading for Sodom to be spared and Aaron and Hur holding up Moses’s arms as he interceded over the battle below. But consider some of these lesser-known prayers from the Old Testament: The servant Eliezer prayed that God would bring the perfect bride for Isaac, and Isaac prayed for his own wife in her barrenness. In his dying hours, Jacob prayed a blessing over each of his twelve sons, and Boaz prayed that Ruth would experience a full reward for her labor as well as the comfort of God’s sheltering wings. Elijah prayed for healing for King Jeroboam’s withered hand, Job prayed for his friends (the pious ones who had judged him during his time of distress), and David pleaded with God not to take his own sin out on the Israelites.2
The New Testament also unveils an assorted array of specific requests people made on behalf of others. Jesus asked His Father to keep Peter strong in faith when He knew he was going to be sifted by Satan. He prayed for a unity among believers that would be so powerful the world would stand back in awe. He wept over Lazarus and then spoke His prayer out loud so that those who were watching would grow in their understanding of God. In His dying moments Jesus prayed for forgiveness for His enemies, and His final good-bye before ascending to heaven was a prayer of blessing that filled the hearts of those left behind with joy.3
Paul prayed for healing for the father of Publius on the island of Melita and pleaded for the salvation of his Hebrew kinsmen. He prayed that the Roman church would have unity of mind and for those in Ephesus to have spiritual eyes to see and know the mysteries of God. He asked that the Colossian believers would come to know God’s will fully and that the Thessalonians might be counted worthy of their calling.4
In the same way, Paul was always appealing to others to pray for him. He encouraged his fellow saints to ask that he’d be delivered from evil men and that other believers would accept his ministry. He told Philemon to pray he’d be released from prison and asked the Roman church to entreat God to send him their way soon. Because he so longed to be used to spread the gospel, Paul often urged the churches to pray that his efforts would be successful.5
In other New Testament examples, we find Stephen appealing on behalf of those who were stoning him, that they not be held accountable for their horrific acts, and Peter and John praying for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit. The fledgling church prayed for Peter upon his arrest, and Epaphras labored fervently for the Colossian believers that they would stand mature and complete in God’s will.6
Clearly the act of one person pleading on behalf of another is a common theme throughout Scripture. But are all of these actually examples of intercession? Does intercession differ from petition or supplication, or simply making another’s needs known to God? If so, how? I believe the answer can be found by looking at Moses, the humble intercessor of the Old Testament. Moses engaged in many conversations with God on behalf of the Hebrew people that he led out of Egypt. On more than one occasion, he pleaded for God to have mercy when the people had been extremely rebellious. Psalm 106 tells of the critical role Moses played at one point when God was furious with them: “He said that He would destroy them, had not Moses His chosen one stood in the breach before Him, to turn away His wrath from destroying them” (v. 23). Moses “stood in the breach.” This is an awesome concept and seems to symbolize the very heart of what makes intercession unique.
When Scripture speaks of a gap or a breach, it refers to something that is no longer as it ought to be, something that has been torn apart or broken down, leaving things in a state of disrepair. In this case, God had made a covenant with Israel—He would be their God, and they would enjoy a relationship of unprecedented favor as His beloved. But within days after He’d miraculously delivered them from Egypt, they began to act as if they’d never known Him or experienced His goodness. They griped and complained and finally created a god of their own liking in the form of a golden calf.
The covenant relationship between God and His people was now broken down, their rebellion having created a breach that seemed irreparable. In His great anger, God let Moses in on His plans to destroy the obstinate bunch and start over, using him to make a great nation from scratch. Moses rejected God’s offer, though he had plenty of reasons to be mad at the Israelites himself. Instead, he took their side, aligning himself with the very ones who had given him such grief as a leader. Standing in the gap between them and God, Moses pleaded for Him to have mercy on them one more time.
As I look back on the last few days, I have talked with God concerning a variety of situations—a friend who was struggling with outbursts of anger and my son’s first day back at school after summer break. I’ve prayed for a young neighbor who is disillusioned with God and for missionary friends experiencing an unprecedented heat wave. I’ve made requests for the leaders in our church and for a prodigal niece and her grieving parents. In some cases I simply shared the person’s needs with God, as I saw them. But in other cases when I prayed, my spirit experienced a unity—an identifying with the person and the deficiency they faced as if it were my own.
When I prayed for my niece, I felt a sense of personal outrage at what the enemy has stolen from her. As I lifted up our church leaders, I was overcome with a longing for joy and power as I sensed that one of them felt trapped in a dry and barren land. When I prayed for my friend, I experienced deep desire for her freedom and mine from the fleshly struggles that stem from living in a fallen world.
This, I believe, is intercession—to stand in the gap between God and needy people, our hearts bonded to theirs as we plead their cases in prayer, regardless of what they have done or haven’t done to deserve His intervention. We see this most extravagantly displayed in our Lord, who walked the earth as a friend of sinners, identifying with us in all aspects of our humanity. In a prophetic word, Isaiah wrote of the Christ: “He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (53:12).
To a world in disrepair, Jesus came. He stretched out His arms on Calvary’s tree and spanned the great breach between holy God and sinful man by allowing Himself to be numbered with cheaters and prostitutes and boasters and gossips and drunkards and gamblers and gluttons and sinners of every sort. He entered into your point of need and mine, interceding for us even to the point of death, so that the floodgates of God’s mercy could flow once again through His shed blood.
Here’s the most amazing thing: Jesus has invited you and me to join Him in bridging the gap between a dark and desperate world and His Father, who waits on high to be gracious to the people that inhabit it. Scripture tells us that even now Jesus ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25). We are never more like Christ than when we connect with another in their pain or their sin and choose to carry their burdens in prayer, asking God to bring His kindness to bear on the disrepair in their lives.
Intercession is simple, yet profound. It is a precious privilege granted to each one of us. Through it we are brought into the very heart of the One who reigns above all and holds the worlds together by His power. From that place we live out our incredible destiny as co-laborers with Christ. I believe if we could see it, if we could just catch a glimpse of the wonder in each whisper of intercession, we’d be hooked for life.
One night many years ago, I awoke from a deep sleep with a distinct sense that someone had spoken. The word I heard was intercessor. I lay there a few minutes, wondering what it meant and where it had come from, and then I heard it again. Intercessor. It wasn’t an audible voice, but it seemed as real as if my husband had sat up in bed and said it himself. I knew that this was more than some random thought. Wide awake by now, I climbed out of bed and went to the living room to wait. Feeling a bit like the boy Samuel, I told God He could speak anytime—that His servant was listening. Nothing happened.
Although it was four in the morning, I decided to stay up and pray. Over the course of the next several weeks, I woke up at the same ghastly time every day, but I didn’t feel tired or resistant, and in fact was excited about getting up and meeting with the Lord (trust me, this was a miracle). I never heard the word intercessor again, but I was certain God was calling me to an exciting new way of life. I couldn’t wait for Him to make me a full-fledged intercessor.
But then one morning, and the next and the next, I woke up not to the dark of night, but to the sun streaming through my bedroom window. I tried setting my alarm for a few days to recapture the early-morning vigils but had to drag myself out of bed, that joyful sense of eagerness a thing of the past. I soon settled back into my old quiet-time schedule, but the memory of that voice, of that word—intercessor—haunted me like a tune I couldn’t get out of my mind.
I began to read everything I could find on the subject of intercession, soaking up information from books and articles and Scripture passages like a sponge, but the more I read, the worse I felt. Don’t get me wrong—the stories were exciting and the instruction was rich—but all I could think of was how far I was from what I was supposed to be. How would I ever live up to such noble aspirations?
Why would God call me to a discipline I seemed unable to achieve? Could I be an intercessor if I would just bite the bullet and force myself to spend hours on my face every day? Did all real intercessors carry burdens with such sobriety that they would gladly go without food or drink or sleep in their desire to see God intervene? Was I just (pick one) lazy, resistant, lackadaisical, rebellious, ignorant, hardhearted, or immature? Did I suffer from some spiritual stronghold or personality defect? This was a frustrating time, for no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I could never get away from the feeling that I hadn’t yet become a real intercessor.
And then one day a couple of years later, God spoke about it again and His answer stunned me—it still does. In my spirit I sensed Him saying this: Tricia, when I whispered the word intercessor to you years ago, it was not because there was something I wanted you to become, but rather because it was something you already were. I just wanted you to know.
Me? An intercessor? How could this be? Immediately the objections started buzzing around inside my head. But I pondered what I’d heard, turning the words over and over in prayer until a sense of peace descended, and I knew something had changed. For the next several months, I put away the books and messages and articles and tried to listen to what God was saying to me. How can I explain this? At some point I just stopped trying to be something I wasn’t and began to walk in the wonder of what God said I already was. Today I know this for certain—I am an intercessor—I have it on the highest authority. Just to write those words fills me with joy.
I want you to know this and believe it as well. If you are a Christian, you are, by your very nature, an intercessor. When God saved you, He filled you with the life of Christ, who is always interceding. And though our propensity to identify with another’s pain or cry out on their behalf out of love and compassion may be buried beneath a load of guilt and a pound of flesh, intercession is every believer’s call and destiny, joy and crown.
Please hear me—there are no chosen few. Intercession is not a spiritual gift bestowed on select saints. This myth of a special call has of late created an entire cottage industry of books and conferences and causes. Pastors during the past decade have been inundated with counsel and even condemnation from those who consider themselves uniquely set apart from the rest of the body to be intercessors.
So I will say it one more time: If you are a Christian, you are an intercessor. I am not writing this book to tell you what you ought to be, but to help you discover what you already are so that you can experience the wonder of it. What burns brightly within you is a heart to intercede, and it has been there a long time. (Repeat after me: I am an intercessor.)
People who read books on prayer are usually hoping to learn how to pray more effectively. If that describes you, you’ll be eager for me to give you some handles on how to get started or move beyond the point you are at right now. Should you commit an hour a day to pray for others? Should you fast consistently or spend one night a week in prayer? Do you need to have some weekly plan that ensures every need is prayed for regularly?
The answer to all these things, for now, is no. What I’m going to ask you to do instead is to set aside your expectations of what this journey is supposed to be like. Let go of all the “should’s” and “ought to’s” that come at you when you think of prayer. Resist the nagging voices that tell you if you would just work harder or learn more or become more spiritual, you’d finally get this whole intercession thing right.
Andrew Murray wrote that “the sense of impotence is the soul of intercession.”7 Don’t rush past this blessed truth. Do you feel powerless at times in intercession or even impotent to begin or persevere in prayer? Do you feel inadequate? Do you look at yourself and wonder what God is thinking when He calls you an intercessor? Do you watch others farther along the path and question whether you’ll ever get there?
If your answer is yes to any one of these questions, then there is incredibly good news for you. The very thing that makes you doubt yourself is that which actually qualifies you to be an intercessor. Why? Because God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). The very foundation of humility is the ability to see our own need and impotence, our helplessness to do the things we want to do. This is the soul of intercession because it opens the door for us to receive God’s grace, and “grace is God’s transforming power to do in us what we cannot do for ourselves.”8
One of the most important steps in embracing the ministry of intercession is to find out what feels natural as far as the way in which we pray. This is a process similar to one every new writer goes through to discover their “voice” as they begin to practice putting words to paper. When I first started to write, the things I had to say sounded a lot like whatever book I happened to be reading at the time. The following sage advice from a classic primer on writing by William Zinsser speaks volumes and set me on a course of freedom as an author:
You will reach for gaudy similes and tinseled adjectives, as if “style” were something you could buy in a style store at the mall and drape onto your words in bright decorator colors. There is no style store. Style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or if he is bald, his lack of it.9
This is a great truth for writers and intercessors as well and brings us back to my confession at the start of this book. Though I am always tempted to try on someone else’s shoes or to emulate the “style” of those I consider real intercessors, I have learned, and I hope you will, too, that there really is no style store. In writing and in prayer, style is organic to the person doing it—which means you and me. How we intercede, when we intercede, the words we use, the tone we adopt, how long we intercede—all of these are things that come from the core of who we already are in Christ.
In one tongue-in-cheek article, Alice Smith draws our attention to the different styles on display when intercessors come together. She tells of the Mercy-Motivated Intercessor praying with “passion and tears, a fever erupting in his heart,” until the Administrative Intercessor gets irritated and wishes she could organize the meeting and give it some direction. There is the Warfare Intercessor, who goes into spiritual battle as she “waves her hands and fiercely rebukes the rulers of darkness,” while those around her wish someone would give her a sedative! The Prayer-List Intercessor seems too “calculated and routine” to some, and the Seasoned Veteran intimidates everyone into silence with his or her perfect prayers. Finally, the Off-Track Intercessor breaks in with prayer for his neighbor’s lost puppy.10 A bit exaggerated, perhaps, but close enough to reality that we all can relate to it.
Each of us has unique gifts, personalities, and preferences, and recognizing this is critical to our enjoyment in intercession. So what is your style? How can you tell if you’re being yourself in prayer or trying to be someone else? Zinsser likens taking on someone else’s style to a bald man’s putting on a toupee. He may look young and handsome at first, but people always do a double take, because something just isn’t quite right. It’s the same with intercession. When you find yourself slipping into someone else’s style, things just won’t feel quite right to you or those who might be joining you in prayer. There is something comfortable about our own style, an ease that can come only through practice.
As we move forward in this book, my desire is that you will grow in the simple grace of intercession, avoiding pretentiousness like the plague. Though you may experience a nagging pressure to live up to the stories and lives and prayers of others, I hope you will resist the temptation. There is no style store; there’s just you and me, learning how to pray—one prayer at a time—until we operate with the flair of natural-born intercessors.
At the end of each chapter, we will pause to meditate on the prayers of other saints—some monologue and some dialogue with God. There are a few reasons I think this will be meaningful. First, we will see how varied intercessory prayer can be and catch a glimpse of God’s heart through praying people. Second, this rich heritage can expand our vision as it reveals how we are one small link in a great prayer chain that stretches across the course of history and spans the globe today. This can build our faith in powerful ways.
Here’s a format you can follow, but feel free to establish your own:
(DANIEL 9:4–19 NLT)
O Lord, you are a great and awesome God! You always fulfill your promises of unfailing love to those who love you and keep your commands. But we have sinned and done wrong. We have rebelled against you and scorned your commands and regulations. We have refused to listen to your servants the prophets, who spoke your messages to our kings and princes and ancestors and to all the people of the land.
Lord, you are in the right; but our faces are covered with shame, just as you see us now. This is true of us all, including the people of Judah and Jerusalem and all Israel, scattered near and far, wherever you have driven us because of our disloyalty to you. O LORD, we and our kings, princes, and ancestors are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. But the Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him. We have not obeyed the LORD our God, for we have not followed the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has disobeyed your law and turned away, refusing to listen to your voice.
So now the solemn curses and judgments written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out against us because of our sin. You have done exactly what you warned you would do against us and our rulers. Never in all history has there been a disaster like the one that happened in Jerusalem. Every curse written against us in the law of Moses has come true. All the troubles he predicted have taken place. But we have refused to seek mercy from the LORD our God by turning from our sins and recognizing his truth. The LORD has brought against us the disaster he prepared, for we did not obey him, and the LORD our God is just in everything he does.
O Lord our God, you brought lasting honor to your name by rescuing your people from Egypt in a great display of power. But we have sinned and are full of wickedness. In view of all your faithful mercies, Lord, please turn your furious anger away from your city of Jerusalem, your holy mountain. All the neighboring nations mock Jerusalem and your people because of our sins and the sins of our ancestors.
O our God, hear your servant’s prayer! Listen as I plead. For your own sake, Lord, smile again on your desolate sanctuary.
O my God, listen to me and hear my request. Open your eyes and see our wretchedness. See how your city lies in ruins—for everyone knows that it is yours. We do not ask because we deserve help, but because you are so merciful.
O Lord, hear. O Lord, forgive. O Lord, listen and act! For your own sake, O my God, do not delay, for your people and your city bear your name.
Anselm was a philosopher and Benedictine monk who went on to become the archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century. His writings on the existence of God were both scholarly and prescient, bringing understanding to searching souls even to this day.
What is God really up to with intercession? Why does He call us to it? If we could see what He sees when we intercede, what would we think? How would it impact our desire to pray? These are some of the things we’re going to look at next, as we step back and examine the big picture from God’s perspective. I like to call it the Great Invitation, and I hope you’ll come along.