Questions from a friend about the essay, “Why Intercessory Prayer ‘Works’”

Questions from a friend about the essay, “Why Intercessory Prayer ‘Works’”

To understand this discussion, you will need to read “Why Intercessory Prayer ‘Works.’” A dear friend sent the following questions about that essay.

Your main point, as I read it, is that God wants people to exercise the authority he gives them, but too few people do that. That makes some sense and seems consistent with the Bible, but I don’t see it as a teaching that’s emphasized much in the Bible. “Why it’s not happening” is the focus of my questions:

  1. Most Christians seem to be familiar with the promises of God that you refer to. Why do so few people understand and believe them?

Yes, most people are familiar with those promises. (Just as most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:39-42: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.)

But my guess is that fewer than a tenth of one percent of Christians, at least in Western developed nations, take Jesus’ words seriously.

Concerning the promises related to prayer: You attended church services for several decades. How many sermons/teachings did you ever hear suggesting that those statements are quite valid, urging believers to exercise spiritual authority or to accomplish works of power (e.g., healing, quieting a room full of angry first graders, changing the course of a storm, etc.)? Even when teachers/preachers mention biblical statements about power from the Holy Spirit, in my experience an important part of that teaching will be an explanation, “Of course this doesn’t mean that. . .”

Why do so few people understand and believe them? Because they are taught not to believe them. In truth, hardly anyone believes those promises are valid for believers today.

  1. Why are many people too busy or lazy or distracted to exercise authority? Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit guide them more effectively?

My answer is simple: Sin.

Please recall the first several paragraphs of “Why intercessory prayer works.” I described in those paragraphs two real-life instances of situations where either I or a group of my friends totally dropped the ball in exercising the kind of intercessory power we could have exercised—resulting in multiple deaths in each case.


We are sinful, lazy, selfish, self-indulgent creatures. It’s the (fallen) human condition. I cannot count the number of times I have felt that the Holy Spirit might be urging me to enter a period of prayer so that he could use me powerfully to intercede for people who were suffering—but I just couldn’t work up the energy to do that, so instead I read a mystery novel.

Even for people who are practiced in and accustomed to encountering God through major periods of prayer (that eliminates the large majority of believers), there unfortunately can be nearly insuperable barriers. It shouldn’t be like that, and giving in to these roadblocks is egregious sin, but it is simple reality. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course; but when I feel that God may be urging me to put on my armor and go into battle, as it were, more often than not I find an excuse to ignore him.

Exhausting work

The kind of intercession I’m talking about involves heavy, exhausting, soul-draining, spiritual and mental and emotional exertion. I suspect it is neurologically similar to what individuals experience when they take a three-hour essay-type final exam, or when they drive at 70 miles per hour in bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic. They would be exhausted, mentally and emotionally and physically. Ditto for spiritual warfare. On occasion, I have done little physically other than kneel silently in a church pew, or perhaps walk slowly in my neighborhood, exerting minimal physical effort; but I was engaging in fatiguing spiritual/mental/emotional activity that left me so drained that afterwards I could barely speak. It’s nothing to which I look forward. Alas, when I can do so, if I am not centered on my Lord Jesus (which unfortunately is usually the case), I often find an excuse to avoid it.

Not his fault

Concerning your question, Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit guide them more effectively? I’ll answer with a quote from one of the most important essays on this website, Hearing God’s Voice (1):

God wants to communicate with us more than we want to hear him. God is not the limiting factor. We are.

Once again I offer as Exhibit A the opening anecdote of Why Intercessory Prayer “Works”. My failure to recognize God’s voice, my failure to double-check what I thought I might be hearing, my basic self-centeredness and laziness—all these resulted in the murders of at least three innocent individuals, two of them children.

Lemonade—at minimum, a teaching moment

When faced with any event in which it’s pretty clear that God has acted, I find it useful to ask, “What can I learn from this?”

Here’s what I glean from the tragic episode described at the beginning of “Why Intercessory Prayer Works”—concepts I have gleaned similarly from many other personal experiences:

(1) God does not force himself on us. I have no idea if the problem lies only with our “receivers” or if there possibly are mysterious spiritual principles that prevent God from shouting at us, as it were. But all I got was the name of the biology teacher. Very quietly. On only a single occasion (so far as I could perceive). Whatever the reasons for that, the takeaway lesson for me is NOT to wonder why God didn’t yell at me or slap me in the face until I listened; rather, I conclude that I need to spend much more time with my Lord so that when he speaks even in a very still, very small voice, I will hear him! There will be time Later On to ask theoretical questions. Once again: God is not the limiting factor—we are.

(2) It is reasonable to assume that I was not the only believer tagged to intercede for “Mr. L.” I assume that the Holy Spirit probably ranged widely, even desperately, over the entire planet, seeking someone who would listen to and heed the call to intercede—but the others either did not hear the call, or, like me, managed to suppress it.

(3) The incident strongly corroborates my understanding that to a very large extent God cannot/does not act directly in human affairs without a human partner. In other words, I believe this incident reinforces the concept that humans are the ones with authority to rule this planet. Otherwise, God simply could have zapped Mr. L. in a way that kept him from murdering his wife and children. We are indispensible players in the healing and liberation of our world!

(4) It is reasonable (but not necessary) to posit that a single believer can sometimes effect major spiritual victories. The facts that (a) I, a single individual, failed to respond to the Holy Spirit, and (b) the murderous act proceeded on schedule, suggest the likelihood that a single obedient intercessor could have blocked the tragedy. The only other cogent conclusion is that n intercessors were required, and my disobedience left the situation with n 1 intercessors, and so the killings happened. That could be the case, but it doesn’t feel right to me. I have been involved in enough situations when I was unambiguously the only person praying, and there was a clear victory, that I strongly lean toward the idea that in many tragic situations only one faithful intercessor is needed (cf. James 5:16-18).

(5) I believe there must be two ways (at least) by which we thwart the advancement of God’s kingdom through our laziness or unbelief or disobedience or whatever. (a) In too many situations, we close our ears to the Spirit’s whisperings, thereby depriving needy individuals of necessary “air cover,” to use a military term. (b) In other situations, we observe a situation that cries out for intervention, and we spend all our energy asking God to “Do something!” when God is begging us: “Look, it’s you who need to do something!” This is precisely the situation in the story about Biafra in the opening paragraphs of “Why Intercessory Prayer Works.” I easily imagine our Lord’s frustration on countless occasions similar to what Moses experienced in Exodus 14:16. In that event, God sort of scolded Moses, saying, “Why are you crying out to me? YOU part the sea!” I imagine God’s speaking to his children today with similar encouragement: “Why are you asking me with near-endless repetition to heal your friend? YOU heal her! Speak the word! Step into your rightful place of authority that I created at the Beginning!”

I have zero understanding of the spiritual dynamics governing when it is or is not important for us to speak words of command rather than asking God to act. Clearly, God responds to our requests; he even promises to do so! (John 15:16, 16:23) Yet I have sufficient respect for the early leaders of the church that I cannot avoid finding significance in their actions when they did something other than asking the Father to act (Acts 3:6-7, Acts 9:40, Acts 14:8-10). It’s possible that important/unknown spiritual dynamics were at play in each of the recorded episodes; or maybe these things happened so that Luke the historian would record them for our benefit. I have no clue.

Hold my words loosely in your mind

Please note that everything I am saying here is an oversimplification. Every believer is not expected to address every needy or tragic situation with some kind of Holy Spirit hand grenade. After all, the body of Christ comprises people with diverse gifts. Some are gifted with powers to heal, for example, some (probably most?) are not. I have never had a healing ministry, but I know the specific people to whom I would go if I needed healing. Even absent a gift for healing, my personal approach is always to “go for the gold,” however, i.e., to speak total healing every time I pray for someone. Why not? (I usually do that silently, not wishing to distract or offend any who might hear me. And I do that only if the Spirit has not given me something specific to pray.)

  1. Why does it take “a tremendous amount of time and effort and physical/emotional/mental/spiritual investment to learn the ways of the Holy Spirit”? 

I include here what I said in the essay on intercessory prayer, immediately after the first quote you cited, since I thought I had used a pretty obvious analogy:

It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort and physical/emotional/mental/spiritual investment to learn the ways of the Holy Spirit in becoming a “prayer warrior,” to use a popular term. If you wanted to become a highly effective physical warrior/soldier, do you imagine you could do it merely by grabbing an M-4 carbine and heading out to the front lines? Of course not. You would train for months and months, putting yourself through all kinds of grueling, difficult disciplines to prepare yourself to face the enemy with any decent hope of not being blown away in your first skirmish.
In order to train ourselves to hear the voice of and experience the immense power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we likewise must invest enormous amounts of discipline and hard work. Times devoted to quiet prayer and listening before God, for example, will be measured not in minutes but in hours. And more hours. This is not because we need to prove something to God by jumping through a lot of hoops before he decides we’re “deserving” and are now ready for the heavy prayer battles. . . The war in which we are embroiled is cosmic (see Ephesians 6:10-18). It involves forces immeasurably greater than mere human soldiers and missiles and bombs; we can’t glibly make up our minds to become engaged and then immediately walk onto the battlefield.

I don’t understand why that is not clear. Since it seemed to puzzle you, however, I should provide further explanation.

Spiritual balance sheet

Consider Jesus, whom the gospels describe as performing endless numbers of healings and miscellaneous other miracles. It is not now and it was not then a question of saying magic words and Voila! The deed was done. Jesus, the Son of God, himself spent hours and hours communing with his Father, sometimes praying all night long. He needed to charge his spiritual batteries, as it were. If he needed to, then shouldn’t we?

Magic was never a part of Jesus’ ministry, such as we see in the Harry Potter stories where merely uttering the correct incantations accomplishes the trick.

A good example of what I’m alluding to may be the account in Mark 5:30 when the woman with years-long hemorrhage touched Jesus’ clothes and he was aware that power had gone forth from him.” Although I cannot prove it, I am pretty confident that Jesus’ experience was not that of a superhero with an endless reserve of energy; the more likely picture is that Jesus felt power/energy draining from him. For that is the way of God, the way of righteousness, the way of love: When we truly channel God’s love, it is sacrificial. It costs us.

Imagine a balance sheet displaying in the positive column an individual’s spiritual wholeness and the potential power for healing and blessing (the credits)—and in the negative column the redemption and healing and kindnesses that actually flow from that person in ministry (the debits). The healings, the miracles, the words of love, the compassionate acts, are inherently costly. The ultimate, indeed infinite example is Jesus, through whom the entire cosmos was healed and redeemed—but at the cost of horrible torture and death and even face-to-face encounter with ultimate personal evil. Infinite redemption, infinite cost.

At trivial cost to myself, I can perform a minor act of kindness (calling a sick friend, retrieving a neighbor’s trash can from the street). But it requires a much deeper, more laborious and stressing investment to spend a couple of hours with someone who is going through deep, painful circumstances and who needs a chance to unload. Not long ago I felt called to spiritually intercede in a major event that signaled potential violence to thousands of people and involved significant forces of spiritual evil; to prepare for that several-day prayer project, I fasted and prayed for nearly a week beforehand. And I was wiped out in every way when it was over.

Do you see the pattern? Spiritual dynamics are no different from those in the natural world. The greater the consequences, the deeper the darkness, the more powerful the evil—the greater the investment required on our part. There’s no magic with God. No waving a wand and Bam!, something stupendous happens. I do not doubt that, after days of healing people, Jesus was spiritually and emotionally and physically depleted.

Remember the young man possessed by an extremely violent spirit that even the disciples could not cast out? When the disciples asked about that, Jesus replied, This kind can come out only through prayer” (Mark 9:29 NRS). Jesus dealt with the evil spirit with only a couple of sentences—but don’t forget that Jesus had just spent the entire night in prayer! Note the implications of Jesus’ statement: Some spiritual battles require much more preparation, charging of spiritual batteries, accumulation of ammunition, whatever metaphor you want to use—than others.

  1. This sounds like learning to use the Force, not like the “gift” described in Acts.

Precisely! That’s a great analogy. I would amend your statement only to say that it is the Holy Spirit’s gift that requires the learning, the practice.

Clear reception

I believe the paramount gift we receive when we begin to hang out with the Holy Spirit is that of hearing his voice. No matter what Spirit-empowered gift I feel moved to exercise, my first question is always, “Is this from God, or from nefarious spiritual forces, or from my own imagination?” Whether I want to pray for a person to be healed, or have seen a picture in my head (a “vision”) that I believe is from God, or feel that I should command a tornado to alter its path, or have received what I believe is instruction to write a specific email, or have a gut feeling that I need to call my sick friend and ask if I can come over and read to her, or feel a strong impulse to share a prophetic word, etc.—my most elemental concern is always, “Is this God???”

That is the single question to which I have devoted by far the greatest amount of discussion on this website: “Hearing God’s Voice (1)”; “Hearing God’s Voice (2)—How to Practice”; and “Hearing God’s Voice (3)—Potential Barriers”. It is not a trivial matter to learn to hear and to practice hearing God. But it is fundamental to everything else. And I dare say that, even though the metaphor is fictional, I suspect it is similar in difficulty to “learning to use the Force.”


A note so that I do not confuse those quick minds who have detected an apparent inconsistency: “But you said God wants humans to be in charge! You suggested that God encouraged Moses not to wait for a divine miracle, but that Moses himself should part the sea! How does that jive with what you just now said about needing to hear from God every time we feel led to do something?”

Great question.

As I describe in “Inspiration, Prophecy—How it Works,” inspiration of all kinds, including the exercise of charismatic gifts, is a partnership between God and humans. The Genesis story describes God’s giving the humans authority over the garden; but he didn’t abandon them. They seem to have had a get-together every evening to talk things over. For a more contemporary picture: even if I insist that my Cub Scout son is going to do all the planning and all the actual work to make his pinewood derby racer, I’m not going to abandon him to potentially bleed to death should he attempt (against my explicit instructions) to use the circular saw on his own. No. I stay there with him, standing out of the way, watching, offering unsolicited advice only when it seems necessary to avoid calamity or total failure, ready to answer any reasonable question or to lend a hand when I’m asked. In the end he’ll be able to say honestly that it was his creation; at the same time, however, it was unambiguously a partnership between him and me.

So it is with all gifts of the Holy Spirit. There is always a partnership. Yes, we should use our own wisdom and imagination and faith in exercising these supernatural powers. But it is not appropriate for us to run off on our own, neglecting the Father who stands watching, encouraging, warning, graciously ready to provide guidance. No matter the situation, whether trivial or civilization-changing, it is not only appropriate but even crucial that before proceeding with a particular endeavor, we obtain input from our heavenly Daddy. That may arise after deep, agonizing prayer and fasting; or it may entail nothing more than a look toward his face and a raised eyebrow from us that communicates, “This is OK, right?”

  1. If “utter humility is a prerequisite to properly exercising spiritual authority,” how can anyone do that?  Who can be completely humble?

Indeed! How can anyone do that? You know as well as I that no one can do that. One man did it, a couple of millennia ago, but it ain’t going to happen again.

No mortal in this age is devoid of some kind of dark pride. What I described is a correlation. The deeper our humility, the more adept we are at handling the awesome responsibility of the power to which we as humans were called. My purpose in writing the statement you quoted was twofold: (1) to be certain that readers do not misread my intentions to suggest that Christians are supposed to be superheroes, for that is ludicrous; (2) to encourage believers to seek humility with the same enthusiasm they devote to seeking the power of the Holy Spirit. Many Christian ministers who have learned to channel the power of the Spirit—especially those with large television ministries—eventually devolve into celebrity superstars. Even when they retain their ability to access Holy Spirit power in order to bring healing to God’s people (for faith and spiritual power, to the surprise of many, are not inherently correlated with personal righteousness), they have become minikins in the Kingdom through their vanity, and often are on the verge of becoming inconsequential at best.

I strongly suspect that Jesus’ frequent charge to people he healed not to spread the news (especially true in the gospel of Mark) had no subtle subtext. Rather, he just didn’t want to become a celebrity superstar! I’m sure there were several motivations for that stance; but at least one of them, I assume, is that he knew it would be a strong temptation toward vanity, and he didn’t need such temptations!

  1. All of your article appears to blame the lack of effective intercession on the inadequacies of humans.  Why does God leave people to suffer due to the failure of others to exercise proper authority? That seems very callous, especially considering the universal weaknesses of humans.

Aha! We have now entered the realm of shoulder-shrugging. You have introduced The Problem of Evil, or The Problem of Suffering as some call it. Neither I nor any other Christian writer has an intellectually satisfying answer to the question of why God permits suffering when he could stop it in an instant. Of course, no other spiritual/religious tradition does either.

I do, however, have an answer that—while it may not scratch a skeptic’s intellectual itch (God, by the way, has never been particularly interested in doing that)—nevertheless affords believers a strong degree of mental/emotional ease that can comfort them in even the most distressing life situations.

It is overwhelmingly clear from the entirety of scripture that God intended humans to be free. Radically free. He wanted us to be as much like himself as possible—for that, of course, would permit the most satisfying kind of interactions with his creatures. And radical freedom entails the possibility of choosing the wrong paths. Which, alas, humans have done from the beginning.

Yes, God could intervene to prevent bad choices, just as I could have intervened when I saw my son making a possibly counterproductive move in constructing his pinewood derby racer. But I chose not to do that, because then it wouldn’t have been his racer. And God has chosen not to intervene by limiting human freedom because he insisted on having 100% free daughters and sons. God in his mercy chose a different path. In light of the possibility that his human experiment would go totally off the rails into the darkest of evil and cruelty and sickness and suffering, he committed to bearing in his person all the pain, the suffering, just as if he himself had experienced it in the flesh.

In fact, God went beyond what any mortal could imagine: He did become flesh, dwelling among his selfish, sinful creatures, knowing from the beginning that when faced with pure Goodness, our only possible response would be to kill him. Which is what happened. He was not only killed, but tortured. Yet it wasn’t the mere bodily and psychic experiences of those relatively few agonizing hours that made the eternal difference. Somehow he bore, he experienced, he welcomed into himself all the suffering that any human has ever experienced or will ever experience. And he swallowed it up in his love.

And the glorious resurrection of Jesus guaranteed forever that all humans, no matter how greatly they may have suffered, if they choose to accept such a marvelous gift, will be able to look back upon their greatest suffering and say, “Yes, that was unimaginably horrible, but I would go through it all again in order to know the joy that I now know, and will know forever.” There has been unimaginable suffering among humankind, but virtually infinite suffering for God. It appeared to be the only way he could achieve victory in his experiment to leave his creatures radically free. But what a glorious victory! Eternal, passionate, joyful love not only for all people but for God also!

2 Replies to “Questions from a friend about the essay, “Why Intercessory Prayer ‘Works’””

  1. Very good article. Very encouraging. I would love to be able to fight the good fight and hear and to and obey. Alas I am weak, but I do have faith. Likely I will try again and attempt to “hear”. On another note, What was the results of last October’s battle we entered? I usually don’t know what the results are. Or the results are yet to be revealed?

    1. Lehman,
      Regarding the two occasions during the past year on which I solicited people to pray: During and after the second occasion, I received zero understandings of what was going on. I was just called to pray. Toward the end of the first fast-and-pray session, I did experience a picture in my mind that would not go away, even after two days. But every time I have wondered if I should share it with those who said they were praying, I have felt no motivation to do so, and so I haven’t. Whether that has been from God or from my own failings, I’m not sure. I keep having the feeling, however, that some of these days I will be sharing it–although to be honest, it probably won’t be very meaningful to anyone, as it wasn’t particularly to me.


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