Not all prayer should be for our selves. To pray only for ourselves – whether it’s confessing our sins or presenting our requests or praising God for what He’s done in our lives – is selfish. Sure, it’s spiritual selfishness. But it’s still selfishness nonetheless.
Last week we said that the primary purpose of prayer isn’t to change things but to change ___ (us). Well, part of what needs to change is our selfish nature and praying for other people will do that. Intercession is a way of loving people and it’s a way to serve people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls intercessory prayer a “purifying bath.” Why? Because in praying for others we slowly scrub away the ingrained self-centeredness that keeps us from being like Jesus. And so tonight I want to ask three questions.
1. What is intercessory prayer?
2. What are the benefits of intercessory prayer?
3. How can we intercede for others?
But first I want to read a passage from Exodus, because it’s going to help us answer those three questions. Intercessory Prayer – what is it? What are the benefits? How do we do it?
Exodus 17: 8-13
Then Amalek came and fought with Israel. Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some men for us and go out and fight. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.’ So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people.
On the surface this is a pretty strange story but the implications for intercessory prayer are pretty profound I think. The Israelites are in the wilderness and the Amalekites attack. Well, Moses – he’s the leader and because of that he’s the one that’s got to choose the military strategy, which I think can be summed up like this. “Joshua – you fight and I’ll pray.” You see Moses understood that behind this earthly conflict was a spiritual one and that only by lifting his hands in prayer could the battle be won. And here’s what’s amazing – the Bible is suggesting that Moses had the harder task. After all, Aaron and Hur had to hold his arms up. In other words, Moses’ job was more important than Joshua’s.
Now, when all was said and done who do you think got the credit? Joshua – after all, he was the one leading the charge. People probably started spreading rumors about Moses being a coward. But what the Bible suggests is that the real work was happening behind the scenes – where Moses and Aaron and Hur were interceding on Israel’s behalf. It was their work and not Joshua’s that determined the outcome of the battle.
Now what Moses and Aaron and Hur did for Israel is something all of us are called to do for each other and for our world. Not all of us are going to be on the front lines – visible, celebrated, “public leaders” so to speak. But we are all called to intercessory prayer. Behind every earthly conflict is a spiritual one and God invites each of us to partner with Him in His victory over sin, evil and death. And so with that in mind …
(1) What is intercessory prayer?
The best definition that I’ve ever heard is “longing for what’s best for someone before God” (Keller). Intercessory prayer isn’t about us – our needs, our sins, things we’re thankful for. No, in intercessory prayer we bring before God what we think is best for someone else.
Whenever we intercede for someone we do the work of a priest – we go to God on behalf of someone else. Whenever we intercede we act as a mediator. A go-between. Think of Moses – where does he pray? Moses intercedes from the top of a mountain, which is symbolic for being between heaven and earth. Moses places himself between the people of Israel and God and he raises His staff in prayer. That’s kind of what intercessory prayer is like, only the image is somewhat flawed because in Christ we’re not just standing on a mountain – no we get to walk straight to the throne of God.
And in interceding for someone I find it helpful to know three things –their needs, their flaws, and their strengths. I want to know a person’s needs so that I can ask God to meet them. I want to know a person’s flaws so that I can ask God to remove them – to change unhealthy heart patterns that keep them from becoming the person God wants them to be. And most importantly, I want to know a person’s strengths so that I can thank God for that person. Each one of us is a living, breathing miracle – far too often we forget that. That’s something we need to celebrate before God. But either way, in intercessory prayer we approach God and we “long for what’s best” for someone else.
Now, before moving on there’s something I want us to see. Intercession is something we all do on a human level. For example – let’s say Prescott Jefferson III wants to go to Harvard Law but he’s got a 2.7 GPA and he majored in frat. But lucky for him his dad’s best friend is head of admissions. He talks to his dad, his dad talks to the dean, Prescott goes to Harvard. His dad interceded on his behalf. Or perhaps something a bit more common – you don’t have tickets for next weekend’s game but your best friend’s roommate does. “Will you talk to him for me? I can only pay face value but I really want to go.” The only reason you got to go to the game was because your best friend interceded for you. Now in Christ, each one of us has access to the God of the Universe – a God that’s infinitely rich, a God that calls us his child and essentially says, “Ask me for whatever you want.”
(2) What are the benefits of intercessory prayer?
Ok, you might be thinking – that’s great but isn’t God just going to do what God’s going to do? What are the benefits of intercessory prayer? In other words, why do it? I’ll give us three good reasons. Intercessory prayer changes things, it changes relationships, and finally it changes us.
Intercessory Prayer changes things
What I’m about to tell you is very mysterious – prayer changes things without changing God’s plans. Now wait a second, you’re thinking, it’s got to be one or the other. No it doesn’t. We’re dealing with God and God’s ways are beyond anything we can understand. Prayer doesn’t change God. That’s part of what it means for God to be Sovereign. But, prayer does change things, circumstances, and people.
There’s a famous verse in the Book of James that says, “You have not because you ask not.” Think about that reading from Exodus. When Moses held up his hand in prayer Israel won the battle but when he dropped it – when Moses stopped interceding – the Israelites would lose. The author’s point is pretty clear – it matters whether or not we pray.
You see, whenever we pray for people we bring the mysterious power of God into their lives. Prayer may have psychological benefits but it’s not just a psychological exorcise. A lot of good things don’t happen because God’s people don’t pray. It’s like James says – we have not because we ask not. And so the first benefit of intercessory prayer is this– it changes things, circumstances and people for the better.
Intercessory Prayer changes relationships
There’s no getting around it, I’m a better Christian when I’m praying for the people I’m around. I’m more aware of their needs. After all, I’ve thought about them enough to bring them to God. I’m more aware of their flaws. I’ve been asking God to work on their hearts and so (a) I see it coming (whatever “it” is that bothers me about them) and (b) I want to be part of the solution – not part of the problem. And so I’m a lot more patient and a lot less irritable. And finally I’m more aware of their strengths. I’ve been thanking God for their faith or their humility or whatever gift they have that I know blesses other people. When we pray from someone our concern for them grows, our love for them grows. Why do you think Jesus told us to intercede for our enemies – because Jesus knew that in praying for them we’d eventually come to love them.
And so if there’s someone in your life that you’re angry with right now or if you’re holding a grudge, I’ll be bold – I know that you haven’t been actively interceding for that person. Why? Because when we think deeply about someone’s needs and flaws and strengths and pray for them God softens our heart. Prayer strengthens our relationships.
Intercessory Prayer changes us
Intercessory prayer is behind the scenes, servant ministry. Going back to Exodus, Joshua got credit for winning the battle but it was Moses – the man praying behind the scenes – who secured the victory for Israel. And intercessory prayer is really hard work precisely because it’s by nature behind the scene work. In other words, we’re not going to get any credit for the way our prayers bless the life of someone else. But here’s what we have to see – that’s the essence of holiness. That’s what it means to be like Christ. To long for the good of others is the essence of holiness. Or to put it differently, nothing will make you more like Christ than to long for the Christ-likeness of someone else.
I’ll be honest – meditating on scripture, praying for my own needs, praising God for what He’s done in my life – I find that easy and enjoyable. Why? Because it’s all about me. It’s all about my growth and my peace. And of course that’s good – I should be concerned with my own spiritual walk. But, we’re going to get stuck in the process of our sanctification – which is just a fancy theological word for the process by which God conforms our heart to His – we’ll get stuck in the process of our sanctification until we begin longing and praying for the sanctification of other people. Nothing makes us more like Jesus than longing for others to be like Jesus.
And so to recap – what are the benefits of intercessory prayer? It changes things. It changes relationships. It changes us.
(3) How can we intercede for others?
First, we need to intercede for others by ourselves. A portion of our personal prayer time with God needs to be designated for praying for other people. If we don’t yet have a personal, disciplined prayer time, well that’s something we need to consider. But we need to make a habit of praying for other people. And for reasons already mentioned, intercession is mentally tough work. It requires heavy thinking and because of our limitations we can’t pray for everyone. It can be draining to think about someone else’s needs and flaws and strengths. And so lesson #1 – don’t overdo it. Like Moses eventually our arm gets tired and if we try holding it up too long we’ll pull a spiritual muscle.
But let me give you two methods I find helpful. First, because I read Scripture in the morning I make a list of all the people that come to my mind as I read the Bible and then when I’m done I pray for them. Some people are on my list every day. Some people asked me to pray for them earlier in the week. Some people just pop into my head. Whether it’s a coincidence or the Spirit, I pray for them. Second, I call this the “Google calendar” method. I look at my calendar for the day and I pray for whoever’s on it. This method also works at night praying for the people you spent time with that day.
Second, we need to intercede for others with others. Is Jesus with us when we pray alone? Of course. But He also went out of His way to say, “whenever two or three gather together in my name I’m going to be there, too.” And so in a way that’s kind of mysterious, Jesus is present in a deeper and more powerful way when we pray with other Christians. I’m not saying you have to join a prayer group. But I will challenge you to think about it. And I’ll also tell you that my spiritual life is much richer for being a part of one. This is what Richard Foster says about Christians interceding together:
“It is God’s desire to bring individuals and families into saving faith. It is God’s desire to bring people off of addictions to drugs, sex, money and status. It is God’s desire to deliver people from racism, sexism, nationalism and consumerism. Organized, corporate intercessory prayer is a crucial means for the fulfillment of these yearnings in the heart of God.” (Prayer, 199)
We need to pray for others with others. Moses wasn’t strong enough to hold up that staff by himself. And neither are we.
Now, a final word before we break for small groups. If we begin praying with persistence and passion we’re going to run up against the problem of unanswered prayer. And here’s what I want to say about that. The night I wrote this talk I spent two hours babysitting my nine-month-old goddaughter. Over the course of those two hours she tried to stick her slobbery fingers into an electric socket, eat a knife sitting on the coffee table, and crawl down the stairs by herself. Those were her “prayers” so to speak – the deepest desires of her heart. In not letting her do those things I wasn’t trying to tell her I didn’t love her. I was trying to show her that I did.
And so whether it’s for our self or for someone else, sometimes we pray for things that aren’t granted not because God isn’t good but precisely because He is. We may think our greatest need in life is eat that knife but it’s not. And so let me say this – when we’re faithful in prayer and persistent in prayer and intentional about prayer God always gives us and the people for whom we pray that which is best under the circumstances. And sometimes that means not intervening in people’s lives or allowing them to experience the result of their choices. But remember – God does that not because He isn’t good but precisely because He is.
Not all prayer should be for our selves – that’s spiritual selfishness. Remember our goal is to become more like Jesus and nothing will make us more like Christ than longing for the Christ-likeness of someone else.