Why Intercessory Prayer “Works”

Why Intercessory Prayer “Works”

I was in graduate school in Boston. Just before Christmas break, the name Mr. L—a biology teacher in my high school—popped into my mind. I hadn’t known Mr. L, and didn’t even recall what he looked like. I briefly considered the possibility that perhaps I was supposed to pray for him. Cleverly deciding a series of random associations must have brought the name to my mind, however, I dismissed the thought—I was very busy, and had little time to prepare for my flight home for vacation.

The day after I arrived in Dallas, I saw on the front page of the Dallas Morning News that L had shot and killed his wife and children, and was in jail for murder. I firmly believe my prayers could have prevented that tragedy, had I been obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit!

During the Biafran civil war in Nigeria several decades ago, millions of people—mostly Christians—were dying of starvation. Friends of mine were praying for Biafra when someone in desperation cried out, “Lord, how can you let this happen?!” God’s prophetic response: “If just the few of you in this room had been doing what you could do in the Spirit, taking advantage of the power I promised my people in the name of Jesus, you could have prevented this suffering. . . Don’t complain to me!”

Intercessory prayer often appears mysterious.

Christians often wonder, “How in the world can prayer to an omnipotent, omniscient God actually accomplish anything? It’s not as if he needs our help.”

Some people—including good friends of mine—are so scandalized by the idea that we might petition Almighty God to do something and he would do it just because we ask, that they refuse to participate in “asking” prayer. They believe that such prayers are self-centered—that the true purpose of prayer is simply to draw near to God in pure adoration and praise and thanksgiving and surrender. And they are largely correct: Such is in fact the highest form of prayer, in which all other kinds must be grounded. But these and many other rationalizations about “asking” prayer are based, I believe, on an inadequate understanding of God as he reveals himself to us in scripture. Their idea of a God who is too lofty to attend to “selfish” requests from mortals is quite different from the biblical God.

The way it was supposed to be

Let’s look at what scripture says about God’s initial intention concerning humankind:

From the first chapters in the Bible:

God created humankind in his own image . . . God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  —Genesis 1:27-28 (adapted from NRS)

. . . Yahweh God formed every animal and every bird, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.  —Gen 2:19 (adapted from NRS)

Ancient understanding was that even knowing someone’s name gave a certain amount of spiritual power over that person. That God told the humans actually to choose the names meant that he was giving them inestimable authority over earth creatures.

The implications of the Genesis story are profound, and extend far beyond human relationships with llamas and chipmunks. The early chapters of Genesis are extremely radical in their view of God and in their view of human beings. Genesis describes a God who is SO big that he was able to create—indeed, it was his delight to create—creatures who are in many ways very much like himself: free, creative, independent beings to whom he gave authority to run this planet. And he stepped back and said, “OK, folks, let’s have fun together. It’s all yours. Use your imagination. I’ll collaborate with you, but let’s see what you can do with this planet. . . You’re in charge. I’m available for consultation. But what you say (mostly) goes.”

Things didn’t turn out so well, of course. Humans abused their freedom and surrendered their authority to beings who were enemies of God—spiritual beings, in fact, over whom the humans presumably were to have exercised authority on some level.

The way it is going to be

From God’s original intention, let’s fast-forward to the finale, to see his intentions for humankind after the end of this age:

From the last chapter in the Bible:

. . . The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the new Jerusalem], and his servants will worship him; they will see his face. . . they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.   —Rev. 22:3-5 (NRS)

Note also:

 [Addressing Jesus, the Lamb of God], they sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.  —Rev. 5:9-10 (NRS)

God has never abandoned his desire to have a peoplea family, a multitude of sons and daughters—who are so much like him that he can delight in their decisions, their choices, their creativity. That was his intention when he first created human beings, and that’s what he will establish in the new creation: It’s their planet, and they must (they will) learn to run it!

In the meantime. . .

The jump from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 is rather large. What about the intervening time?

God’s intention never wavered concerning the role of humans on this planet. Listen to what he said to Israel during those first weeks when he was calling them out as a nation to be his special people:

. . . you are to be my own unique possession out of all the nations. Even though all the earth belongs to me, you will be for me a kingdom of priests . . .  —Ex 19:5-6  (translation BCM)

Does that sound familiar? In the end, Revelation 5 tells us, God will indeed have his kingdom of priests, who will reign on earth. Back in 1200-something B.C., however, he was telling Israel, “That’s what I want you to be NOW!”

In a grand sense, this is about family. God wants daughters and sons with whom he can relate as true, loving, intimate children—not as slaves (see the quote from John 15 toward the end of this essay), not as robots, not as helpless babies, but as mature individuals who are incredibly like himself. He originally wanted human beings to exercise authority on this planet; he doesn’t appear to have wavered in that desire.

Unfortunately, Israel flunked at being a kingdom of priests (alternate translation, a “priestly kingdom”)—at interceding for the whole world, at bringing God’s dominion and freedom to all nations. Therefore God intervened eventually in the most radical way possible: He himself became human, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. God’s irrevocable decree had been that a human being must reign on planet Earth: and finally, through the human being Jesus of Nazareth, God had one human who through his total obedience would reclaim the kingship of this planet, if you will, who would demand the return of the scepter of authority from the demonic powers to whom humans had given it eons before.

But God still wanted that family to grow up spiritually, to learn to exercise the kind of creativity and authority that he intended for human beings. The command in Genesis to have lots of babies preceded the charge that the humans should rule on the earth. It wasn’t just for the first humans, and not even just for Jesus—God wanted ALL humans to have that kind of relationship with him!

Listen to what Jesus said to his followers:

I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. —John 14:12 NRS

Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. —Mark 11:23 NRS

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. . . —Matt 18:18-19 NRS

Those are incredible promises. Note the blurring of the lines between asking God for something and simply proclaiming it to be so. Many if not most of the more extraordinary miracles in both Old and New Testament do not describe someone’s asking God to do something, but rather that person’s declaring it with authority—from commanding the waters to part, to commanding a lame man to walk. It’s not the vocabulary that is important, of course, but the understanding and the faith. From the beginning, God intended human beings to wield extremely high levels of spiritual power and authority. It’s not a question of solving the mystery of why an omniscient, omnipotent God would listen to petitions of squeaky-voiced, puny mortals—it’s more a question of those puny mortals’ standing up and assuming the mantle of power and authority they were created to possess. In a sense, believers today might consider ourselves to be constantly challenged by our Lord: “Why are you crying to me to heal those people? You heal them!”—just as God told Moses long ago (Exodus 14:15-16), in so many words, “Why are you crying to me to do something? You part the sea! Just lift up your rod. . .”

Please note: I am not suggesting that believers are called to be superheroes, wandering the world and tilting willy nilly at demonic windmills. All gifts of the Holy Spirit are intended to be partnerships between a human and God. Yes, our Lord wants us to exercise our own wisdom and discernment; but remember, he is always present, and it’s unwise (to say the least!) to proceed with any spiritual act without first checking with him. In some cases, faced with extraordinary spiritual challenges, we may deem it appropriate to fast and pray for many days, or even weeks, seeking the heart of God; in other, apparently minor situations, we may feel it’s appropriate to do no more than to look at him for a few seconds with a raised eyebrow as if to say, “This is OK, right?” In any case: Yes, we are to exercise the authority and power to which God has called us; and yes, we should always check things out with our Heavenly Daddy/Advisor.


Why it’s not happening

I want to address three major stumbling blocks (there are others) to our achieving these extraordinary promises.

(1) The first barrier is our unbelief that stems in large part from our misconceptions about God. When we look at the amazing promises God has given us, we tend to twist his intentions until we see the promises as some kind of distant, illustrious prize that God doesn’t expect anyone to attain.

In light of what scripture reveals about God’s desires for his people, I believe we might colloquially translate Jesus’ statement as something like this:

“Guys and gals,” Jesus says, “I’m going to leave you shortly. But let me tell you what’s going to happen. This is SO exciting! Anything you bind on earth, the Father will bind in heaven! The sky’s the limit! You guys are gonna kick some Satanic butt!!!”

Unfortunately, we have a multitude of ways by which we neutralize Jesus’ statements about binding and loosing, about the Father’s granting whatever we ask. We theologize, we rationalize, we modify, we dilute. We can’t bring ourselves to believe that this promise is actually God’s pleasure! That he had this in mind all along! That he longs for us to start using this authority!

God sees an unspeakable tragedy about to strike a Dallas family whom the forces of evil intend to destroy, and he looks for someone who will intercede, who will step up and exercise the authority that Yahweh God gave to human beings from the beginning. The intercessor he is finally able to get through to is too busy to pay attention. And the trigger is pulled. Once. Then again. And again.

God’s heart is torn asunder in pain as he suffers with the millions who slowly starve to death in Biafra, all the while he is casting his eye over the earth, seeking someone who will intercede, who will step up and exercise the authority that God gave to human beings in the first place for just this kind of situation. But he finds no one. The intercessors are too busy, or too distracted. And the children die. One at a time.

In no way am I saying that Christians through prayer are able to prevent all the evil in the world. But if God’s people were to stand in the breach to the extent that he desires and is willing to empower us to do, we can’t imagine the blessings that would flow.

So the first impediment to our acting on God’s promises is our unbelief.

(2) A second major barrier is our laziness. Stated simply: 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. It’s just the way things are. 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.

(3) A third major stumbling block is our pride—which, if we ever do get to the point of beginning to glimpse God’s power in our lives, tends to lead us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. How many times do we see Christians with powerful ministries of prayer and healing and miracles eventually fall on their spiritual faces because they begin to believe, “Hey, am I one cool Christian or what?” It’s a strong and a common temptation—one to which even Moses succumbed (Numbers 20:10) when he suggested that God and he (Moses used first person plural) would cause water to spring from solid rock.

Most of us, whenever we experience an answer to prayer, tend to be quick to tell as many people about it as possible—sometimes legitimately (for we are indeed instructed to proclaim the mighty works of God), but often vainly. I seduce myself into the belief that I’m telling the story of my answered prayer to glorify God, while in truth I do it to brag about my success. It may be a long time before I see anything that good again, so I better get as much mileage out of this semimiracle story as possible!

So along with unbelief and laziness, pride is a major stumbling block to our knowing the kind of Holy Spirit power God wants us to have. Remember: to God, our exercising authority essentially means that we become servants! He wants us to accept authority in the same spirit that Jesus had. . .

. . . who did not even regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . .  —Philippians 2:3-11 (based on NRS)

This concept is absolutely central to what I’m saying. Utter humility is a prerequisite to properly exercising spiritual authority. Spiritual authority certainly can be exercised without such humility (see Numbers 20:6-12), but with consequences ranging from the unfortunate to the disastrous.


Don’t ask, tell?!

Almost all the miracles recorded in the Bible resulted from a human being’s act of faith. Note, for example, what happened in the defining miracle of Israel’s existence: When Israel stood trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army, God said to Moses (Ex. 14:15-16): “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your rod, stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground through the sea” (not “Let me divide the sea,” but “You divide it!”).

Throughout the recorded history of God’s interactions with his people, in fact, the big miracles as often as not have not involved “prayer” in the sense of asking God to act; they have involved human beings exercising authority:

Peter said, “I have no money, but I’ll give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” . . . and immediately the man’s crippled feet were made strong.  —Acts 3:6-7 (adapted from NRSV)

Peter . . . knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body [of the dead little girl] and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. —Acts 9:40 (NRSV)

He didn’t even say, “In the name of Jesus.” He just said, “Get up!”

In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. . . Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. —Acts 14:8-10 (NRSV)

Paul didn’t use the “correct” vocabulary either—nothing about “In the name of Jesus.” What’s going on here?

There are a multitude of passages in scripture whose language would offend most Christians today. When someone thanks us or—heaven forbid—compliments us on something the Lord does through us, we’re extremely quick to respond in the deepest humility, “Well, it was the Lord who did it, not me. . .”  How many times have you heard that? How many times have you said that?! Well, of course it was the Lord who did it! (Why not just say, “Thank you”? or, “I’m happy that you were blessed.”)

Read how some Biblical writers described a few more occasions when God did mighty wonders:

As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. “Oh, my lord,” he cried out, “it was borrowed!” [Elisha]. . . asked, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. —2 Kings 6:5-6 (NIV)

It doesn’t even mention God! Obviously, God did it. But the writer wasn’t in the least embarrassed to say that Elisha made the axhead float.

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. — Acts 6:8 (NRSV)

“That’s a terrible way to phrase it!,” we want to say. “It wasn’t Stephen who did the wonders and signs, it was God, through the mighty name of Jesus!”

Of course it was. That goes without saying. In fact, it literally went without saying in that passage and in other biblical accounts:

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds . . . listened eagerly to Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. — Acts 8:5-7 (adapted from NRSV)

Not “the signs that God did through him,” but “the signs that he did.”

 [Publius’s] father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.  —Acts 28:8 (NIV)

We all understand that the healing came from God. But the writer was not hung up on synthetic humility. The text says simply that Paul healed the man—a choice of words many Christian groups might not tolerate today.

If we can grasp, in genuine humility, what God intended humankind to be from the very beginning, we shouldn’t be so shocked by this kind of language. The power of human prayer should not be a mystery, nor should we be overly surprised to observe human beings “performing” signs and wonders. Peter and Elisha and Stephen and Philip and Paul were simply doing what God created human beings to do—exercising authority, being creative, making significant decisions about what happens on this planet. After all, God created human beings to rule over and exercise authority on this planet (with his counsel). And he howls in delight when bold individuals actually decide to do what they were created to do!

 [Jesus said to his followers,] No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. [Please note: This is family talk, not talk between a king and his abject subjects. It’s mind blowing if we can really accept it! This is the incarnate Creator of the universe speaking!] I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant doesn’t know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit . . . that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. —John 15:13-16

God intended from the beginning for human beings to exercise authority in ruling this planet. For thousands of years that plan was thwarted by human sin. But the human being Jesus restored that authority, and he now reigns at God’s right hand, and Paul says in Ephesians 2 that we’re right there with him. God wants us to exercise authority, to accomplish miraculous healings! He delights in seeing how we choose to bless, to serve, to be creative, taking advantage of Jesus’ resurrection power (and, of course, seeking his counsel). He wants to see us live in the power of the Holy Spirit, to experience the promise Jesus mentioned in John 14 that those who believed in him would do even greater works than he did.

It’s a great honor, and also a great responsibility. In fact, if we’re going to follow God the way he wants us to follow him, it’s not even an option. Our failure to exercise the authority to which we are called is a source of—or at least permits the continued existence of—a great deal of evil and suffering in the world.

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The most important exercise of authority

Because of our spiritual authority as adopted children of God and as sisters/brothers of Jesus—authority that God built into the fabric of this world—we have enormous influence on what happens in the spiritual world whether or not we’re intentionally following God.

Because what we bind on earth may well be bound in the spiritual realm (“in heaven”), we must be very careful about what we bind! Space within this essay does not permit delving into this concept in great detail; but I will at least touch on one particular kind of spiritual authority, of binding/loosing, because of its incomparable importance.

When you fail to forgive someone, you are in fact binding a terrible spiritual burden onto that person.

 [Jesus] breathed on [his disciples] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  —John 20:22b-23

Many years ago, E and I were driving home very late after an evening at some friends’ house. Around 2:00 a.m., we passed a cop who had pulled someone over on the nearly deserted Dallas North Tollway. For some reason, I got quite angry, saying in my mind: “Why is this jackass of a ‘public servant’ wasting his time stopping a motorist on a completely empty highway, when he could be out fighting real crime?!  I hope he gets his come-uppance!”  Next afternoon I read in the paper that, a little after 2:00 a.m., apparently while he was still working that traffic stop, that very patrolman had been hit by a passing car and was in critical condition in the hospital. I firmly believe that, through my silent thoughts, I “cursed” that man. I had unwittingly exercised spiritual authority by effectively saying into the ether, “Boy, that guy really needs to be punished,” and apparently there were some evil powers around right then who were happy to oblige me. I have no way of knowing if my actions by themselves led to this disaster, but they must have been at least a contributing factor. Our authority is real, and powerful, and is to be used for God’s kingdom only! It is therefore of unparalleled importance that we be filled with utter humility and with the love of Jesus, and that we at all times renounce an unforgiving spirit. You have the capacity to bless as well as the capacity to curse.

Our failure to forgive people has the ability to bind them in darkness. It also binds us, of course. My failure to forgive others of the wrongs they have done is equivalent to my saying, with spiritual authority, “I ordain that this person experience the just results of his or her sin.” And the wages of sin, of course, amount to death. By failing to forgive a person, I am essentially binding that person over to death—for since I have been called by God to exercise spiritual authority, there is some mysterious way by which I am able, to use Jesus’ own words, to “retain” people’s sins. (Note: I am not talking about eternal death—everything I say here deals with this life only!)

Jesus’ statement in John 20:22-23 wasn’t only a promise—it was a warning! He was saying that under no circumstances must we fail to forgive. For if we retain someone’s sin, we are subjecting that person to potentially grievous consequences!

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” So don’t you dare retain them!!!

The number one area in which Christians are to exercise authority and bring healing on this planet is to extend forgiveness—to release people from the power of sin. A Christian who fails to forgive is like a soldier who retreats a few steps from the battle line and starts shooting his own comrades in the back. It must not happen! Forgiveness is the bedrock on which all other spiritual power and experience must be founded.

My hope is that we all will soon lay hold of the humility, the faith, and the love that will enable us to walk in the spiritual authority God wants us to exercise, so that we can do our part in breaking the stranglehold of evil on this planet. And may we begin by choosing to exercise that most important privilege of all—to forgive all who have sinned against us. That is a really good beginning.