I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one… (John 17:20-21a NRSV)
Sometimes I have a hard time praying for people. It’s not that I lack faith or that I don’t believe in God’s ability to do great and unexpected things when we pray, and even when we don’t. But sometimes the past, or how I view it at least, colors my view of intercessory prayer.
When a family member I was close to was diagnosed with cancer six years ago, I prayed for God to heal her more fervently than I’d ever prayed for anything before. But just two weeks after being diagnosed, she died. Now and then, when I pray for a sick friend, I remember this experience and feel uncertainty, like a heavy weight settle over me.
What effect do my prayers really have, I wonder, if the outcome is settled anyway, and my sincerest of supplications can’t change it? Besides all that, faith decrees that God’s will prevails, the wisdom of His plans surpasses our limited understanding, and His mercy is steadfast no matter what. So is there really any place for my prayer?
I realize that these questions plague me the most when I adopt a narrow view of prayer. When this happens, my telling a friend, “I’ll pray for you” actually means spending a few minutes presenting God with a request and quickly covering it with a trite prayer creed represented by a single verse like, “Ask and ye shall receive” that I’ve managed to derive from a profound Scriptural concept.
But when I think about other past experiences, such as the challenging seasons in my life that I’ve shared with friends who gave me constant support, or the difficult periods of extended illness, grief, or depression that others have, in turn, shared with me, I realize that prayer can be so much more.
Intercessory prayer is an opportunity to become a spiritual companion on someone else’s journey. It is to enter into their experience, identify with their specific struggles, and share in their heartaches. This type of prayer demands more. It calls me for a heart open to others’ pain and willing to persevere in hope, even when resignation and cynicism are natural responses. Most of all, this spiritual companionship brings unity to the relationship, the unity that comes from bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
But I think the chief advantage of this type of prayer is that it helps me seek the presence of Christ in every step of a given situation and to pray that all the people involved will recognize it. We may learn about God’s goodness when we are healed of a sickness, but the lessons learned along the way are even richer. We see Christ’s compassion in the faces of hospital staff and visiting friends, or perhaps we come to know the grace that is all sufficient during long, pain-filled nights when no one else is around. These lessons bring closeness and oneness with God.
Is there any richer blessing I could ask for a friend?
When the subject of the soon to be crucified Christ’s Gethsemane prayer turned to His disciples He said, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” (John 17:15). He didn’t ask for any easy solutions for those He loved. Instead, He asked for their protection from evil (v.15) and for their sanctification (v.17). He also asked for one more precious gift: that “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (v. 21). He prayed for unity: unity with God and unity with one another. Such is our model for intercessory prayer.
In His name, let it be.