Kerry Campbell ponders what the Bible says about intercessory prayer and how that can help change our own expectations of answered prayer.
This week, I’m thinking about intercessory prayer, or prayers of petition. They’re the kind of prayers which we might pray most commonly, the "asking" prayers, in contrast to prayers of thanksgiving, worship, confession, or meditative prayer. Gosh, there are so many ways to pray! My mother used to say that when you enter a church for the first time, you can make a "wish" – I’m wondering, did your mother say that to you, too? When our childhood church was remodeled, I very boldly asked for a new bike, fully expecting that I’d get it and friend, I never did.
When we pray with specificity for something or someone, or for some circumstance to happen, prayer can feel more like a wish, like a child making a list for Santa. And when that circumstance does not come to pass as we have asked, we may react as a child would. Maybe we silently internalize the slight we feel from God, or we rage against it, or we quietly wonder about the goodness or even the reality of God. If you were born and raised Catholic, I imagine this has happened to you in your prayer life, but if not and if every single one of your prayers has been answered in exactly the way you prayed for, please do let me know, and I will send you my list of intentions right away. More likely, you have a history of at least some unanswered prayers.
Maybe you prayed a Rosary or novena for a specific intention, made sacrifices or undertook a whole pilgrimage even and put all of those prayers and efforts into the bank, expecting results. Maybe your eyes, your spirit, and your hope were raised up so high that God would move in a particular high-stakes circumstance and then … nothing. The person was not healed. The relationship remained broken. The job or the goal or the whatever just slipped right through your fingers and when this happens, it can cause us to wonder, “Is God really listening?”
When it comes to intercessory prayers, there seem to be scriptures that make the case for praying with specificity. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the story of the persistent widow.
He said: “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Well, this story, and the "faith as small as a mustard seed" story in which Jesus said we could move literal mountains if our faith was strong enough – well, these can tie us up in knots, because we can feel sometimes that the business of miracle-making is kind of on us. These stories put pressure on us as a kind of praying lever, that if we just worked at it with enough prayer and sacrifice and belief, we little humans could move the heart of God to finally help us.
I used to think this way. Used to see God as a kind of bookkeeper, stern and impassive and counting up prayers until they finally reached a sort of tipping point for Him to finally act and help me, but I don’t see it that way anymore. As St. Paul says in the First Letter to the Corinthians,
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
Well, friend, I don’t know how "grown up" I really am, but I have lived long enough to know that prayers aren’t wishes. God’s ways are higher than our ways and He’s not up there on a cloud counting prayers waiting on a tipping point to distribute tiny pockets of grace. He’s not stingy. He does see our suffering and our pain, and His heart is oriented to help us, like the very best kind of parent or grandparent would. I’ve learned over time that this help just might not look the way we think or hope in our prayers, so praying with less specificity and more open-handed trust seems to be the journey I’m on these days. How about you?
I do still pray for sick people and for their healing, of course, but I put less parameters on what healing might look like these days. I do pray that the people in my life who are hurting will experience God and the peace that passes understanding and wisdom and guidance that they need so deeply. I picture the faces of individual people on my prayer list and invite God and Mary to make themselves known to them, because I have learned that I don’t need to ‘send’ God into any area or to any person. That would be a pretty big responsibility for a little human like me, actually, don’t you think? The truth is that there is nowhere that God is not, but He can open our eyes to His presence and His direction for sure, so I pray for that. I pray for wisdom and clarity for me and those around me. I pray for my kids who are out on their own – that God would affect their thoughts, what they see, hear, and speak. That the Holy Spirit would impact their emotions, actions, direction, vocation, and every person who crosses their path. I pray these prayers at least once every day, and I used to have a full-on suggestion box for God that I’d include for each one of those areas in the lives of my dear ones, but friend, I do that much less these days. I have learned that God really does know better.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says,
"What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked [that is, sinful by nature], know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:11-13)
For a long time, I asked God for fish and eggs and felt like in return, I got snakes and scorpions, and I made sure to tell God how very displeased I was with all of that. “Fish and eggs. Fish and eggs,” I would remind the King of the Universe, and oh my, He is so patient with me. But what Jesus is saying in this passage is that the nature of God is good – that He is in the business of good gifts for His children, but did you notice that here, Jesus frames the gift of the Holy Spirit as the highest good that we could receive.
When they were small, my kids sometimes asked for birthday or Christmas presents that I could have given them, but I did not, and if you have kids, I bet you have that experience, too. Sometimes the thing they asked for and wanted so desperately just was not the best thing for them. I knew better, and I gave better, but I’m sure there were still disappointments on their end and maybe still are. I’m a loving parent and I’m trustworthy, but there was just so much more to my plan as a parent than what they as children could see and understand at the time. And this isn’t a perfect metaphor because I’m far from a perfect parent, but you get what I’m saying. His ways are higher and for our good. We can count on that, even if we don’t always understand. Even if we get mad. Even if it costs us dearly.
Jesus asked His Father to let the cup of suffering pass Him by if it was God’s will, and we know how that story went. Out of the real pain and death came new life that poured out on Jesus and all of us, new life that lasts. I believe that’s a road that all of us will travel at some point in our lives – the death of a dream, a plan, a relationship, a career, or a much-loved person that we can’t imagine living life without. You’d never tell a person mourning a death of any kind that there was a "reason" for that pain or that God ordained it or caused it, or at least I hope you’d never say that to someone who was suffering, but in the larger view of God, I am sure of two things: He does not leave us and in the end, He is at work in all things for our good, even the worst things.
Sometimes miracles do happen in answer to our prayers because of God’s grace, maybe more often than we know. Miracles in all shapes and sizes probably happen every day, because of the lavishness of God’s love, but often the specific thing we prayed for evades us and sometimes the thing we feared most does happen and in those moments it’s important to know that there is grace for what comes next, the strength or the understanding or the peace or the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other walking it out that so many of us are doing these days.
In Isaiah, we read that God’s words are never wasted and they won’t return to Him empty but will accomplish God’s desire and purpose. In the First Book of Samuel, God says the same thing about Samuel’s words, that God would let none of them fall to the ground. So, friend, here’s the truth: words matter. Our prayers matter. And the cycle of our word which asks, to God’s word which moves is kind of like the cycle of rain. It rises up as our prayers do, and it falls down as God’s grace does, not one drop lost even over millennia.
This cycle of prayer and grace is making beautiful things grow in the mysterious ways that we don’t yet understand, so, let’s keep praying. Let’s keep interceding and let’s keep trusting, but let’s try to do it today with more open hands.
Copyright 2021 Kerry Campbell
About the Author
Kerry Campbell is a Catholic-Christian preschool music teacher, church cantor, writer, full-time noticer, and Mom to two college students. She’s letting the details of her life inform her wider view in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. She loves connecting with readers, so find her writing at MyLittleEpiphanies.com and please say hello!